All the King’s Men, the lifeless new adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel about the Southern political demagogue Willie Stark, is a fascinating failure on many levels—especially since the project seemed to have everything going for it from the beginning. Based on a classic American novel, it quickly attracted a talented director and notable cast. It had trendy liberal ramifications, given its subject matter; the leading-role presence of outspoken leftist Sean Penn, and an executive producer in James Carville, the political fixer who facilitated Bill Clinton’s rise to the presidency.
The film was expected to make a frontal attack on President Bush, in spite of the fact that Stark, unlike Bush, is a populist, a “hick,” and a Democrat. But, oddly enough, All the King’s Men, despite its repeated references to Louisiana’s powerful oil industry, has nothing to say about either of our two most recent presidents. Instead, it chronicles the ascent of Stark, an obscure, reform-minded parish treasurer, to the governor’s office in Baton Rouge. Unfortunately, it’s an often-told tale of political corruption, unique only in its Southern trappings, being loosely based on the life of Huey Long, who served as Louisiana governor from 1928 to 1932. Even worse, the film fails to emotionally engage its audience, and it seems to have nothing much to say, except what everyone already knows: Politics can corrupt, and demagogues are dangerous.
Naturally, the most discussed aspect of the film is Penn’s over-the-top portrayal of Stark. Penn delivers his fiery political speeches with a vein-popping intensity, in a barely comprehensible Southern drawl, and with the twitchy spasticity of the most exuberant televangelist. Given Broderick Crawford’s success with the role in the 1949 film version, there was “Oscar talk” as soon as Penn was cast in the role—one he very much wanted to play. But the reactions to his performance have been entirely at the extremes: either “great” and “mesmerizing” or “appalling” and “laughable.” Several critics in the latter category have encouraged Penn to make good on his past threats to retire from acting. In reality, the performance is a mix of both extremes. Penn is an overrated, ham-it-up actor whose natural intensity and oversized ego seem logically appropriate for the role of Stark. At moments in the film, he does seem to perfectly encapsulate the demagoguery of the man; but at other times the viewer is tempted to look away in embarrassment.
Unfortunately, the rest of the well-known cast seems to be along for the ride. The considerable talents of Jude Law (as Stark’s aide, Jack Burden), Kate Winslet (as Burden’s lifelong love), Mark Ruffalo (as Burden’s best friend), Patricia Clarkson (as Stark’s aide and mistress), and Anthony Hopkins (as Stark’s political opponent) are muted and essentially wasted. In contrast, the score by the talented James Homer (Braveheart and House of Sand and Fog) and the cinematography by the capable Pawel Edelman (The Pianist and Polanski’s Oliver Twist) are completely overdone, even for such a melodramatic film. Edelman shoots parts of the film in a hazy, mossy, Southern Gothic style, while many of the political rallies seem to be lifted from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
The blame for all this misuse of talent has naturally fallen on the head of director/screenwriter Steven Zaillian. Zaillian, one of the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood (Schindler’s List and Mission Impossible), has previously directed two films: A Civil Action (1998), a passable legal drama, and Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). The latter, an unpretentious and powerfully affecting film about a young chess prodigy, was one of the best films of the last 15 years, and it certainly promised future greatness from Zaillian. In attempting to adapt All the King’s Men, Zaillian chose not to watch the 1949 version, which focused more heavily on Stark. As a result, Zaillian rightly returns to the center of the novel: Jack Burden, the narrator, an aristocratic and morally bankrupt young man who becomes a camp follower of Stark and then his right-hand man. In truth, Zaillian does an acceptable job of adapting a novel that is not only hard to adapt but has a number of fundamental problems that become more obvious in the attempt to transform the story to screen.
The strength of Warren’s novel is its mesmerizing prose style. Warren, one of America’s great men of letters, was essentially a poet, and his lyrical, playful sentences are a pleasure to read. But it’s a pleasure that blinds many of its readers to the fact that the novel is really an outdated Southern melodrama, flush with unappealing stock characters and pushing a message that was already stale in the days of Huey Long. Thus the problems with both film adaptations are problems in the novel itself: There’s no one to care about, and the theme is overly familiar. As for the two main characters themselves, the crucial questions in both the novel and the films are essentially the same: How does Stark, a teetotaler, idealist, and faithful husband, transform himself into such a corrupt and drunken adulterer; and why does Burden continue to help him, even to the extreme of blackmailing and eventually destroying his closest friends?
In the new film version, Stark is first seen as a reasonably decent man who wants to build roads, construct hospitals, and help the poor. But then, without any explanation, he suddenly transforms into a stereotypical tyrant of political graft. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t provide much help here; but it does show, through a powerful subplot about Stark’s son (which Zaillian cut), that the governor did come to rethink a few things before his death, and that he even cancelled a dishonest construction contract. Nevertheless, even the novel’s portrayal of Stark is essentially a stereotype; the real heart of the story is Burden.
But why is Burden so self-destructive? And why does he continue to assist in Stark’s blackmails, ruining the ones he loves? The novel—and the movie, to a lesser extent—offers some possible clues to his cynicism (his abandonment by his father, his life of indulgence, his failed romance with Anne Stanton, and the failure of his first marriage), but none of these things explains why he would manipulate and destroy the three people most important to him. This is particularly crucial in the film because Burden is the one character with whom the audience might sympathize. Unfortunately, we’re never given any reason to do so, and in the end, no one really cares.
In 1949, John Wayne turned down the original role of Stark, writing a heated letter to his agent explaining why. Wayne felt that the script “smears the machinery of government for no purpose of humor or enlightenment” and “degrades all relationships,” being rife with “drunken mothers; conniving fathers; double-crossing sweethearts; bad, bad, rich people, and bad, bad, poor people.” To Wayne, the film demeaned not only the American system of government but “the American way of life.” These are very serious accusations that apply to the novel as well. Does the story of these two cynical men who fall deeper and deeper into nihilism—living in a world in which, as Stark explains, there’s no morality and “you just make it up as you go along”—have anything useful to say about corruption, apathy, betrayal, or cynicism? Not really, and this is the real problem at the source of Zaillian’s failed script and film. It’s also the most likely reason why the film was delayed a full year as Zaillian fiddled with the story in the editing room. Unfortunately, you can’t edit in meaning.