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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Politics > Literature > All The King's Men (2006/Theatrical Film Review)

All The King's Men (2006/Theatrical Film Review)


Stars: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Steven Zaillian

Critic's rating: 7 out of 10


Review by Chuck O'Leary


"The only thing worse than a politician is a child molester" -- Sheriff Hank Pearson (played by Rip Torn) to Texas Ranger Jack Benteen (played by Nick Nolte) in Walter Hill's Extreme Prejudice (1987).



My father and I have loved that line since seeing Extreme Prejudice together nearly 19 and a half years ago, and it again came to mind while sitting through the remake of All the King's Men, a timeless story of absolute power corrupting absolutely that promises to make viewers even more cynical about politics.


Based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King's Men was adapted into a movie in 1949 that went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Broderick Crawford won the 1949 Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal in the film of a Huey Long-style politician, and the film's Mercedes McCambridge took home the 1949 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.


Writer-director Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer, A Civil Action) does a more than competent job of re-adapting Warren's novel for the screen, but it appears to have been a futile effort.  Remaking an Academy Award winner is the same as remaking any bona fide classic -- there's only one way to go and that's down.  Zaillian has made a flawed but good film that's better than 90 percent of the stuff that gets produced nowadays.  It's a story set 70-plus years ago that's still steeped in as much truth now as it was back then.  However, the perceived hubris of remaking an Oscar-winner combined with having the film's release date postponed nine months have the majority of critics gunning for this one -- it's already a big critical disappointment and it's too cynical and intelligent to connect with most of today's audiences.


Set during the 1930s, the remake stars Sean Penn as a small-town mayor and door-to-door salesman named Willie Stark, a character author Warren based on charismatic, tempestuous Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long.  Early in the film, Willie gets recruited by Louisiana political bosses to run for governor as a spoiler in hopes of getting another man elected.  With the help of an equally idealistic young newspaper reporter, Jack Burden (Jude Law), Willie discovers he's being used and tears up his scripted speeches to become a firebrand whose man-of-the-people, anti-elitist rantings immediately strike a chord with the working class and the poor.  Calling himself a hick, Willie says his mission is to help all the hicks who've long been ignored by their government.  He's a raging Populist whose anger resonates among the common folk, but quickly makes him enemies among the rich and powerful.


The character with the largest role in the piece is Jack Burden, the reporter who quits his newspaper job to work for Governor Willie Stark.  It's through Jack's eyes that we see Willie transform from a well-meaning crusader for the underprivileged into a ruthless conniver who becomes intoxicated with his own power.  What happens to Willie is not only a common story among politicos from both sides of the aisle, but the universal story of many a man from all walks of life whose ego careens out of control once he acquires a certain level of power.  The cynical message of the movie is that it's almost impossible to become a powerful politician and remain an honest person.


In the role of Willie, Penn once again disappears into character, but his Southern accent is so thick and so specific that it's difficult to understand much of his dialogue.  A Method actor has gone too far once his every word can't clearly be understood by the audience.  I appreciate Penn's on-screen intensity, but much prefer Crawford's original interpretation of Willie Stark.  Penn's and a couple of the other thickly accented performances may benefit from the option of English subtitles once All the King's Men reaches DVD, though theater sound systems can vary.


The remake assembles a terrific supporting cast which includes James Gandolfini as a veteran Louisiana politico who becomes Willie's Lieutenant Governor, Patricia Clarkson as Willie's assistant/mistress, and Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo as wealthy childhood friends of Jack who are eventually used and abused by Willie.  But best of all is Anthony Hopkins, who again steals the show and really makes you feel for his character in only a few scenes as Judge Irwin.  Definitely deserving of another Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here, Hopkins is one of those actors who are so consistently great that it's sometimes easy to take his greatness for granted.  He's truly an amazing talent.


And in case you can't quite place the skinny, balding guy playing Willie's quiet bodyguard, that's Jackie Earle Haley, best remembered as the rebellious, motorcycle-riding Kelly Leak from the Bad News Bears movies of the 1970s.


This new version of All the King's Men was co-executive produced by Democratic political consultant turned pundit James Carville.  I'm sure Carville's come across a few Willie Stark's in his day.


Be sure to check out the original 1949 version on standard DVD from Sony, as reviewed at the following link:





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