Above all, All the King’s Men is wholly unnecessary; not only as a remake of an infinitely superior film, but in its own right. Surely at this late date we no longer require dry lectures about the state of politics, as if there’s a man or woman alive who doesn’t know the whole fucking thing is rotten down to its very foundations. You mean populists are mere demagogues in disguise, and that the man professing the loudest to care for the poor is most likely to be the same man with his hand in the till and his cock inside assorted strippers and mistresses? Still, political films always seem to excite me, as I love the smoke-filled rooms, backstabbing, and endless intrigue. And yet, despite the seemingly unlimited potential, Steven Zaillian’s effort is a crushing bore; obvious and condescending, yes, and without any real idea about what it wants to be. Is Willie Stark a hero, unfairly crucified by his enemies? A self-inflated fraud who got his comeuppance in the form of a bullet? Or is he somewhere in between? As played by Sean Penn, he appears to be little more than a wildly gesticulating madman, but even that’s left open for debate. Such questions might be indicative of complex characterizations in other scripts, but here, it’s a sign of the essential shallowness of the piece, and little more than a sorry reminder that when handled by amateurs, political films avoid depth and retreat instead to blubbery moralizing.
But rather than try to understand Stark (the fictional stand-in for 1930s firebrand Huey Long, here updated to the 50s for no apparent reason) the film frustratingly paints him in a single dimension; power-hungry from the outset, and no less so at the time of his death. As such, there’s no arc to the story, just a simple, static line from one end to the other. He builds roads, schools, and hospitals for “his people” (whom he affectionately calls “hicks”), but as he’s never given an inner life or period of growth, we never suspect for a moment that he means it. The appeal of the story in the first place was that a truly humble man, born into poverty and despair, rose to the very pinnacle of power, only to betray his roots and meet a violent end. Familiar, yes, but an American tale through and through, as it sharply comments on the corruptibility of even our most “decent” citizens. In the re-telling, Stark is always swallowed whole by the temptations of power, and again, Penn’s is less a fully realized role than a bizarre imitation; as if the usually reliable actor couldn’t think of anything else to do with Stark than make him a spastic drunk (he’s never actually intoxicated, but he appears to be). Worse that that, he disappears for large chunks of time, as if we gave two shits about Jack Burden (Jude Law), Stark’s right-hand man and the story’s narrator.
The initial problem with the narration is that it’s read by the unendingly dull Law, who might learn that “corpse-like” is nowhere to be found in Stella Adler’s acting program. He’s the worst possible actor to carry the moral baggage of any film, least of all a political allegory that soared past its freshness date somewhere around the Eisenhower administration. This should always be about Stark, not some naïve young journalist who just now lost his innocence despite having lived through the Depression and the fifty million dead of World War II. That angle, needless to say, is so overplayed by this point that someone, somewhere needs to get busy on the script that manages to find the one character who knew the score before taking that “fateful job” that changed his or her life forever. And hell, if you’re a reporter in Louisiana, which has a long and treasured history as one of America’s most corrupt states, you should know that anyone who roams the countryside preaching “change” is the one man who has no intention of effecting it. It’s like some simpleton from a Frank Capra movie walking into hell expecting a cold front. Again, who is listening to this shit? Is anyone still shocked, shocked to see bribery and favoritism winning out over fair play? Let it be said though — if the only lesson to be learned is that assassination is all that’s left to us common folk, I may be forced to re-evaluate my appraisal.
The other supporting characters — played by Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, and Anthony Hopkins — mean absolutely nothing to us, as they are “types” rather than fleshy realities that challenge our perceptions. Ruffalo (as Dr. Adam Stanton) is the worst of all, despite being the eventual triggerman who puts an end to Stark’s reign. He’s full of idealism himself and eventually feels betrayed by a hospital deal, but he might as well be killing in the name of Allah for all we learn. But the sense of inevitability that hangs over the film like a vile stench makes us realize that this story would not even exist were it not for the hail of gunfire that concludes it. After all, we see guns flashed or shown behind suspicious coats at least a dozen times, as if we had to be reminded that a man like Stark is always facing threats. And while we’re on the subject of symbols, how many goddamn crosses do we need to see in the course of a movie? They’re on desks, along the roadside, around necks, on walls, and just about everywhere except nailed to Stark’s arms and legs. The shots were obvious and purposeful, so to what end? Is Stark a Christ figure? We should only be so lucky to have a savior who fucks exotic dancers in his hotel suite, but I can’t imagine that the filmmaker, as inept as he is, would suggest that self-righteousness is the key to godliness. Sure, Stark had socialist dreams, but only vaguely, as we wouldn’t expect a mainstream movie to offer such radicalism unless tempered by Stark’s raving lunacy and criminal nature. Nevertheless, as we witness at Stark’s funeral, blacks and the poor loved him, so maybe he was Jesus.
Hopkins (as Judge Irwin) seems to be the force by which this story turns, as he is the key to preventing Stark’s impeachment. Stark wants him bribed (or at least threatened) and it is Jack’s job to dig up some dirt, even though the good judge is practically a father to him. So, with all the fathers and sons subtext, is this, like, Shakespearean? In intent, perhaps, but the execution screams otherwise. The past sins are, of course, money-related, and Irwin commits suicide, thereby freeing Stark to be acquitted in the impeachment trial and subsequently shot mere moments later. Yes, I see why we spend so much time with Jack and Irwin, but I just didn’t care after the eighteenth scene involving Stark giving Jack orders about “doing what you gotta do.” It all seemed so small, so insulated; and any of the nobler aspirations or grand statements the film sought to achieve were lost to the banal conversations of these insignificant side players. I mean, how many times must we go back to Jack’s romanticized youth, where he fell for sweet Anne (Winslet) and learned how to shoot ducks with the Judge? Should this make a bit of difference to how this story plays out? It doesn’t, and serves only to prolong the tedium and slow walk towards death. The film’s and ours.