Penn Dominates a Handsome "All the King's Men"
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2006 22 Sep
Release Date: September 22, 2006
Rating: PG-13 (for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity)
Run Time: 120 min.
Director: Steven Zaillian
Actors: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley
Consider the Curse of Jude Law. Voted one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive” for 2004, the handsome actor seemed destined for stardom. After some strong supporting roles earlier , the actor’s moment had arrived that year, when he had roles in five feature films – “Alfie,” “The Aviator,” “Closer,” “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” and “I Heart Huckabees.” Most were creative and financial disappointments, and would seem to have nearly extinguished Law’s chances at future leading-man roles.
Now he’s back, starring in a hotly anticipated adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men,” from director Steven Zaillian. Top-billed by Sean Penn, with equal screen time for Law, and supporting work from great character actors Patricia Clarkson and James Gandolfini, the movie looked like a sure-fire Oscar contender. Its literary pedigree and an earlier Oscar-winning adaptation of the book heightened expectations for this latest version.
But that was last year, before “All the King’s Men” was pushed back to a fall 2006 release. More time was needed to edit the film, or so the studio said. Then the film screened at a major film festival to a lukewarm (at best) reception.
All indications were that the Curse of Jude Law had struck again.
So it comes as a relief to discover that this version of “All the King’s Men,” though far from perfect, works just fine as a story of power, corruption and political machinations, with a very human struggle at its heart. The film powerfully evokes a bond between Law’s character, Jack Burden, and his surrogate father, played by Anthony Hopkins. A betrayal of trust between the two men and its troubling outcome make “All the King’s Men” more than a story of well-intentioned politics gone bad. The film is about the power of father figures to develop character and trust – and how our flaws and human frailty can lead to tragic consequences.
Sean Penn stars, brilliantly, as Willie Stark, a young Louisiana politician plucked by powerful forces to run for governor of the state. The ride to the top has a rough start, as Stark’s campaign – chronicled by reporter Jack Burden (Law), who will eventually go to work for Stark – fails to capture the public’s attention. Only after Willie publicly tosses aside a close aide (James Gandolfini) does he hit his stride as a populist phenomenon, promising roads, bridges and hospitals to his “hick” constituents.
“People are saying God stepped in on Willie Stark’s side,” says one Stark partisan, and the politician takes up the call, exhorting the populace. “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter!” he shouts from his campaign-stop stage. “It’s up to you, and me, and God.”
Though opposed by “oil men,” good-old-boy politicians and a lily-white judiciary, Stark triumphs in his race for governor and promises to pursue an agenda of public works for the underprivileged. “The power’s in the hands of the powerless, and they’ve handed it to me,” he proclaims.
The powerful are not happy. When a judge, who is also a surrogate father to Jack Burden (now employed by Stark), vows to expose Stark as a lawbreaker, the state legislature opens impeachment proceedings against the governor. Stark uses Jack to fight back, asking him to dig up dirt on the man who helped to raise him.
The conflict within Burden over whether to pursue the judge’s past, and what to do with the information discovered, gives the story its moral center. Will Burden follow his conscience and refuse Stark’s demands, at the possible cost of his job? Or will he subject the judge to public scandal in order to preserve a compromised politician?
“All the King’s Men” has no heroes – everyone is flawed. But some people are clearly more flawed than others, and willing to go deeper in the name of preserving power. It vividly illustrates the adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The film alternates between the rise of the charismatic Stark and the initially less compelling story of Burden’s professional and relational entanglements. But as the story of Burden and the judge takes center stage, the film sneaks up on us and delivers a vivid, powerful conclusion, ending with a final image that reveals the wages of sin.
Whatever its drawbacks – the female characters aren’t given much to do, and the energy lags during the second act before heating up again toward the conclusion – “All the King’s Men” is, in the end, a memorable story that sticks to your soul.
- Language/Profanity: Plenty, including racial epithets.
- Drugs/Alcohol: Several scenes of drinking.
- Sex/Nudity: Stark has a weakness for women, particularly female stage performers (referred to as “sluts on skates” by a scorned Stark lover); a woman lies naked on a bed, waiting for Jack to make love to her, but nothing transpires.
- Violence: Gunshots; murder; suicide; a joke about drowning someone; reckless driving.