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All the King’s Men

A Poor Man’s Political Parable

Franklin D. Roosevelt famously described onetime Louisiana governor Huey Long, an outspoken champion of radical populist politics, as "one of the most dangerous men in America." If Willie Stark, Long’s fictional alter ego, is any indication, FDR might have been right. Stark is an unrepentant bully who doesn’t just muscle his way past the opposition; he blows them out of the water. Whether he is a working-class hero or a power-hungry demagogue is subject to debate.

Stark is the driving force behind All the King’s Men, Steven Zaillian’s new adaptation of the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren. This isn’t the first time Warren’s epic tale of political corruption has hit the screen -- an earlier incarnation, directed by Robert Rossen and starring Broderick Crawford, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1949. Zaillian, whose previous directorial credits include Searching For Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action, probably won’t earn any such accolades, but that is hardly an indictment of his efforts.

In his quest to remain faithful to the tone of Warren’s sweeping prose, Zaillian has created a film that is alternately beautiful and befuddling. It is enriched by smart, insightful dialogue and a grand sense of poetry, but where is the focus? Is it Stark, the charismatic hillbilly played by Sean Penn, whose performance is an electrifying mix of scheming intensity, wild gesticulation and impassioned rabble-rousing? Or is it Jack Burden (Jude Law), the big-city newsman who becomes Stark’s staunchest ally and slashes his ties to the Southern gentry in the process?

The answer is both. Zaillian devotes equal time to the two men, and though his attention to the details of Warren’s novel is ambitious, a simpler story might have proved more forceful. Not that Burden’s tale isn’t compelling. He, like Stark, is powerfully conflicted, driven to betray the interests of his wealthy family by the same nagging idealism that draws him to Stark. Burden can barely live with the choices he makes, but still he cannot tear himself away. Whether he is more attracted to Stark’s fundamental decency or his fiery contempt for the status quo is anybody’s guess. Again, the answer is probably a little of both.

Burden’s allegiances are tested, first by his loyalty to his surrogate father (Anthony Hopkins, whose Cajun drawl would seem more appropriate if Baton Rouge were somewhere in Wales) and later by his passion for Anne (Kate Winslet), a well-to-do socialite who can’t resist Stark’s raw country charms. In time, his wide-eyed idealism gives way to world-weary cynicism, a transition that Law captures perfectly in an effectively understated performance, but too much time is spent lingering on Burden’s flashbacks and murky subplots. At all times, Stark’s larger-than-life shadow looms over the proceedings.

It’s easy to view Stark’s rise and fall as a cautionary tale about the corrupting nature of power, one of the film’s most obvious themes -- though it should be noted that Penn’s version of the character never does sell out his populist dream. Yet Stark flaunts his moral ambiguity without shame, reasoning that no man is born without frailty and vice.

Zaillian seems to agree. Nobody in All the King’s Men -- even poor Mark Ruffalo, who has a thankless, underdeveloped role as Anne’s eccentric brother, Adam -- escapes the wages of sin, as if to suggest that humanity is doomed to depravity, regardless of race or class. It’s a bleak message, to be sure, but it makes for a fascinating character study, especially when Zaillian is focusing on the right character.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars