ALL THE KING’S MEN is so swept up in being an important and timely film that it somehow never quite gets around to being either, much less both. It’s the second film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, who took his inspiration and bit more from the life of Louisiana’s flamboyant governor, Huey P. Long, aka “The Kingfish”. There are mighty themes of right and wrong, good and evil, and, of course, political expediency, and they all take second place to a spotty adaptation that metaphorically rolls over after the first ten minutes or so to take a prolonged nap.
This Kingfish lives in the 1950s rather than the 1930s, and is named Willie Stark (Sean Penn). His rise to political power and the corruption that comes with it is told through the eyes of Jack Burden (Jude Law) the cynical newspaper columnist who discovers him at the start of his political career a the treasurer of a backwater town trying to get a school bond passed. A twist of fate that could be the hand of God or someone less benevolent, depending on your point of view, prompts Louisiana’s political machine to tap Willie to make a run for governor, and Jack is right there, writing copy that his editors disapprove of only slightly less than his well-connected family. To everyone’s surprise, this self-proclaimed hick, who eschews strong drink as a courtesy to his schoolteacher wife, and dreams of protecting the working man against the oil men who run the state, turns the tables on the people who thought he would be their puppet. The dream becomes a lust for power for its own sake, with a side of flashy female flesh, even as he follows through on his promises of building schools, paving roads, and spanning the Mississippi with a bridge bearing his own name. Jack falls under his spell as easily as the unwashed multitudes do, though without their illusions as to the dark side of their new leader. He joins the new governor’s staff as what could politely be described as a special assistant, but is in reality digging up dirt on anyone not inclined to give Governor Stark what he wants.
Penn seems so very right for this part, bringing as he does the dark intensity that the doggedness of Willie’s tentative start at political life, and later that the role’s fiery oratory demands as well as the danger that lurks even beneath the would-be dictator’s fine southern politeness. He creates a man to be reckoned, but not reasoned, with, larger than life and twice as vivid. It’s the way the plot leaps about that undercuts even this, the best thing in the film. Willie’s son appears suddenly and without explanation, only to disappear forever from the film. That he is much-beloved, something the novel and previous adaptation made much of, is never established. The political cabal backed by the oil companies to drive Willie from office never takes off dramatically, which is something that plagues the telling as a whole since this removes much of the dramatic tension Willie is supposed to be experiencing. Establishing the tight bond between Jack and his godfather, an influential judge played by Anthony Hopkins, is slapdash and hackneyed, making any sort of inner struggle on Jack’s part moot when the judge crosses Willie and sends Jack to do his dirty work. Similarly the flashbacks of Jack’s one true and lost love, Anne (Kate Winslet) don’t so much annotate even when filling in some details, as drag out this turgid exercise’s running time, which seems like much, much more than the two hours or so that it actually is.
Heightening the shortcomings is that everything is finely observed in a dreamy, disengaged fashion even with nothing worth watching. The camera lingers on such things as the carving on a chair’s back, but for no readily apparent reason. It drinks in the evocative locations of swamp and back road, state capitol and French Quarter. It plays with artistic angles, and puts a fine glossy sheen on everything. There is no such sheen in the performances other than Penn’s. Hopkins bravely eschews any attempt at a southern accent and smiles his way through to his paycheck. Law makes only the most minimal of efforts, and Mark Ruffalo as Anne’s delicately balanced brother looks like a mooncalf from beginning to end.
Fortunately for those forced to sit through ALL THE KING’S MEN, traces of the novel’s fine writing appears from time to time. If it makes someone pick up the book, it will almost have been worth it.