Friday, September 22, 2006
Steven Zaillian is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (forSchindler's List
) who makes his directing debut withAll the King's Men
. He also serves as screenwriter, adapting Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Warren'sAll the King's Men
was an expose on American politics and was obviously inspired by the life and political career of Louisiana governor Huey Long. Long's alter ego in the book is Willie Stark, a self-described "hick" who tries to run for local office, fails and then gets caught up in the big political machine and eventually ends up as a corrupt, populist governor of Louisiana.
Zaillian opens his film of All the King's Men with the great seal of Louisiana at the state capitol building, and then cuts to Stark (Sean Penn), Jack Burden (Jude Law) and Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley) driving at night and on a seemingly unscrupulous mission. Stark seems about to use some strong-arm tactics on an uncooperative judge. Then we cut back in time to meet a younger and more naive Willie Stark getting his first introduction to politics. He has a meeting with Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), a cog in the big political machine in Louisiana. Burden, a somewhat cynical reporter, witnesses the meeting where Stark complains about the corrupt system leading to the building of a school that Stark warns will be substandard construction. Stark leaves the meeting not impressing anyone. Soon after he loses his bid for office.
But when the school collapses and kills three children, Stark is suddenly on the political radar as a man who will go up against corrupt politicians. Duffy convinces him to run again. But Stark doesn't realize that Duffy is working for one of the other candidates who just hopes that Stark's entry in the race will split the "hick" vote. When Stark discovers that he's being used, his anger inspires him to deliver an impassioned speech that wins the people over and ultimately provides a wave of support that ushers him into the governor's mansion. Although he talks about building bridges and schools and hospitals "for the people," his administration soon looks as tainted and corrupt as the one he replaced.
Zaillian's film has some big shoes to fill. Both the book and the 1949 movie won accolades and delivered gritty, unflinching portraits of back room politics. Zaillian's film makes changes to what I remember of the plot (but it's been awhile since I've seen the original film or read the book) and the changes don't improve the story. Zaillian doesn't seem to want to draw Stark in as critical a light as the original film. In the first film there were innocent people who were taken down by Stark; in the new film, everyone seems tainted and there's no one who's completely innocent. It's as if Zaillian's trying to say that there's a graying of issues, nothing is black or white and we're all guilty of not being innocent. As Stark says in response to Burden's refusal to manufacture evidence against an opponent, you don't have to make things up "the truth is usually sufficient." But that perspective weakens the story as a portrait of Stark. Plus we get less of a sense of the evolution of his character, how he moves from hick to governor, from political neophyte to savvy dealmaker who has the muscle to make what he wants to have happen actually happen. This is a film that just skims the surface and provide no depth or details.
Penn puts fire and passion into his performance but without a strong script to lay out a convincing character arc, there's not a whole lot he can do. There are some fine actors here but for the most part they fail to connect with the characters or convince us of who they are. Only Jackie Earle Haley (remember the ringer kid from The Bad News Bears? stands out as Stark's strong-arm man who's always there quietly in the shadows.
Part of the problem with the casting is that Zaillian has actors from all over, and the result is a mish-mash of accents and styles that fail to make us believe that this story is happening in Louisiana. In fact, Louisiana is not even a character in this film and it should be. If Zaillian didn't open and close with the great seal of Louisiana at the capitol building, we might have thought that this story was set somewhere else. Plus there's an attempt to give the early scenes a Depression-era feel but then the story ends in the fifties and without a distinct feel for either time frame.
To give Zaillian the benefit of the doubt, maybe he was trying to show how universal a story this is and that it could happen any time and any place. But since the inspiration for Stark is a very colorful Louisiana personality, Zaillian seems to shortchange his film by not making a connection to time and place, and not firmly planting the tale in Southern soil.
All the King's Men (rated PG-13 for some language and sexual content) has an effectively bleak visual look and a strong performance by Penn. But Zaillian never brings all the elements together to deliver a film as forcefully compelling as its 1949 predecessor. There should be a real bite and sting to this tale and a sense of the workings of back room politics. Bt we never get a feel for smoky rooms and behind the scenes maneuvering.
Companion viewing: All the King's Men (1949), The Last Hurrah, The Great McGinty