All the King's Men
by Robert Penn Warren
(Hardcover and Paperback)
"All the King's Men"
There's not too much wrong with this adaptation from Robert Penn Warren's 672-page novel that an excision of 30 minutes or more wouldn't turn into something a bit more pleasing to its legion of critics. The bombast of it comes with the territory (Louisiana politics of the 30s) and the performance artistry is rich, when the actors don't have to spend so much time stretching to accomodate screenwriter-director Steven Zaillian's overly elongated script.
There's such a thing as being inspired by the material; there's another about being disciplined about it. A long book doens't translate very well to a long movie and, in this instance, 2 hours is fatiguing, even with a superlative cast. Sadly, the indulgence of the length and the resulting critical meltdown may cost some talent involved a nomination or two.
The opening sequence is a flash forward when the big man, Willie Stark (Sean Penn suitably overstuffed and swaggering), a standin for Huey Long, the populist governor of the state of Louisiana, is riding out to the ivy-draped mansion of Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) to confront him on his support of a vote on impeachment that would throw Stark out of office. Driving the car is "Shooter," Stark's silent, armed bodyguard. Int he back seat is Stark's smart and clever aide, Jack Burden (Jude Law), a successful journalist who chose to leave his paper on an issue of conscience concerning Stark's early idealism.
That much established, the story shifts back a couple of decades to the events that led up to this crucial confrontation. As county treasurer of Mason City, Willie went up against the power elite who were entirely in league with and abjectly subservient to big industry, oil and railroad interests and those who supplemented their state salaries, paid their graft, contributed to election expenses. A perfect picture of corruption. And, the only one trying to ruin this image of political paradise was Stark.
This upstart wanted schools, bridges, decent salaries, and dignity for the working class. He considered himself one of them, a moral stance that came to the attention of reporter Burden like a warm ray of sunshine. To his competitors, who won the election, he was little more than a burr under their saddle. But the party machine had need for an idealist. Masters of political mathematics, they calculated that a third campaigner for the governership would split the votes in favor of their man. Enter Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) to make a run for this high office seem possible for Stark.
Thanks to Jack Burden and campaign aide Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson), Stark gets the drift, throws his prepared, sleep-inducing speeches away, and starts talking to the electorate as one of them, causing Duffy to slip from a platform into a hog pen somewhere in his rush into office.
Though Stark does manage to build highways, schools and the like for the citizens of Louisiana, time in office tends to wear away the idealism and promises, and corruption works its way into the the staunchest moralist. Stark becomes as bad as the politicians and business elite he bested without diminishing their scorn or danger. With a House full of enemies, they plan a vote on his impeachment as soon as they see an opportunity.
Political infighter as he is, Stark puts Burden on the case, demanding he find a chink in Judge Irwin's armor. Something that will cause this highly influential man to reconsider his position. Hence the confrontation of the opeing sequence. But digging up the past in order to embarass his long time friend isn't something the reporter is comfortable doing. But in the course of carrying out his assignment he contacts two other important players in his past and in the present drama: his first sweetheart Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet) and her brother and best pal Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo) who take a close and intimate part in the political joust for Stark's office.
Which, according to sources, is closer to Warren's book than was Robert Rossen's version of 1949 starring Broderick Crawford in the governor's chair. A classic of screenwriting and performance, it won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor (Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge). This, for the reasons already mentioned, has a steeper hill to climb for such recognition.
Contibuting to it may be the dual centers of interest in the story line. The rise and fall theme is equally weighted with the influence of misused power on the moral stalwartness come unraveled for Jack, and how he copes with how he went from acclaimed reporter to political hatchet man at odds with the interests of his pedigree. Law's mission is the difficult expression of internal contradiction and there's probably no actor better skilled for the task. Which is not to say his exemplary effort justifies the split in story focus, but it makes the most of it.
For his all-southern lead characters, Zaillian, with the aid of casting director Avy Kaufman, cast a Californian (Penn), 3 Brits (Law, Hopkins and Winslet), and a New Jersey Italian (Gandolfini). The only genuine article among the primary players is Patricia Clarkson (New Orleans native). What this tells us about the director's approach is that he went for the size of the talents rather than origins, leaving his people to swim in the tide of accent adaptation as their capabilities allowed. While the risk involved has already produced much condemnation, I found it interesting to observe how each of them coped with the challenge, and wasn't turned off by the result. It's a make believe world, after all, and I'd rather see indisputable talent filling roles than compromises for the sake of national or sector appropriateness.
So, in the end, flaws of theatricality are everywhere, but I channel my condemnation mostly to what writing excess brings in the way of subject fatigue. I enjoyed the clarity of the political drama, the delineation of characters who are part of it, and the exposure it provides of the corrupting nature of politics and human nature, which hasn't changed since Robert Penn Warren wrote his Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
~~ Jules Brenner Cinema Signals