All the King’s Men
2006Director: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet
ean Penn is coming at you. Screen-sized. Grandstanding. Up on a rail in front of a silver mic. He speaks, a loud Louisiana drawl. Cut to a close-up. His hair high and long above his ears. His eyes a vicious steely blue. Raising his arms, cocked over his head, he points at a farmland sunset. He calls his audience ignorant. He calls himself a hick. He attacks the fat cats in town that he says are keeping them from theirs. “Nail ‘em up,” he shouts. “You give me the hammer, and I’ll do it.” The crowd of farmhands and swampers cheer. Penn waves in acknowledgement.
The Academy Award-winning actor is playing Willie Stark, of course, the Louisiana working man who, through big-hearted charisma and more than a little mudslinging, gets himself elected governor. The mammoth figure from Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same title, returning to the screen in writer/director Steven Zaillian’s new adaptation, fits into a broad narrative tradition: the rags-to-political-riches story called the American Dream (see, for starters, Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Of course, in All the King’s Men, Stark becomes obsessed by the power of his office, convinced of the inhumanity of everyone, and dependent on blackmail and violence to maintain what he increasingly believes is his necessary post. If King’s Men is a version of Mr. Smith, it is the one where Jeff Smith shakes the power broker’s hand, finks on the boy rangers, and laughs his way through a cushioned political career.
Stark, we know, is real: a razor-thin literary veil for former Louisiana governor Huey Long, one of the most controversial politicos in American history. As a Southern governor feigning man-of-the-people status, Stark has also been used in more than one presidential election to describe the candidate on the opposing side. In Zaillian’s film, “Nail ‘em up,” sounds like a couple Bushisms, while Stark’s public charm and less-than-private licentiousness recall Bill Clinton. But if the character and its implications are real, one all-important aspect of Zaillian’s film is not: its authenticity. The film is, quite bluntly, a show-off, to the point that political statement—or moral or historical statement as the case may be—is undervalued. Stark is running for governor. Penn, Zaillian, and the rest of a cast and crew that includes four Oscar winners and four other nominees are running for little statuettes.
In fact, virtually every aspect of Zaillian’s film seems calculated for the awards-season. . The script is heavy with voiceover and metaphor. Pawel Edelman’s cinematography, which at first blush is beautiful, later feels redundant and forcibly crafted into place. Even veteran composer James Horner’s score is cumbersome and desperately grand: never was so much emphasis placed on an envelope landing softly on a table (a snow globe, maybe, but no envelope). With extreme backlighting around every turn and the central point—that bad will always come from bad—thinly veiled in the main character’s colorful sideshow, All the King’s Men is overshot, overwritten, and overlong.
Remember, though, that the accomplished screenwriter Zaillian has much to live up to with this film, only his third directorial effort, following 1998’s A Civil Action and 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer. His source material isn’t just the classic novel, but the 1949 film that took home three Oscars, including Best Picture. While recreating such a critical success is only necessary if the story is updated to reflect or analyze contemporary values and situations—which Zaillian’s film ultimately is not—the thought-process behind the posturing here seems to be of a different order: a desire for year-end accolades. Oscars and other awards are a big draw. They can mean renewed attention, reconsideration, and, of course, a lucrative re-release. No doubt, “awards season” has changed the way films are marketed. Look no further than All the King’s Men’s trailer, which proclaims its entire cast’s credentials at the first opportunity (including James Gandolfini’s three Emmys).
For what it’s worth, Penn does not deliver a bad performance, but his part is heavy on kitsch lines like, “I’m the way I am, you da way you are, and that’s just an arrangement founded in the natural order of things,” and his gesticulations lack as much in motivation as they do in subtlety. In short, he’s coming at you. Sean Penn. Academy Award Winner Sean Penn.
All the King’s Men is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Arthur Ryel-Lindsey
Published on: 2006-09-25