All the King's Men

For political junkies, Hollywood was to be good year, if only because Sean Penn planned to release a remake of All the King's Men. Based on the 1946 novel by Robert Penn Warren, Penn's movie would inevitably be compared to the original, one of Hollywood's best, starring Broderick Crawford, and the book itself. After seeing the new version last night, I can't report that it holds up well against either, both of which I enjoyed immensely.

First, to be fair, I have to say that Sean Penn gives a fine performance as Willy Stark, the rural hick from Louisiana who rises to be governor before being corrupted by power and dying tragically. Penn's personal politics aside, he is a fine actor and just about perfect for the role. However, Penn was the only good casting decision the producers made. The British actors Kate Winslet, Jude Law, and Anthony Hopkins are miscast in their roles as Louisiana elites and offer little if any insight into the world of a diminishing southern aristocracy. (The producers suffered from a common American mistake, thinking that British actors bring a kind of "eliteness" to their American characters.) Mark Ruffalo (a personal favorite) is better as Adam Stanton, but only Patricia Clarkson as Sade Burke, Stark's media staffer, provides a performance close to Penn's.

But it is the movie's direction and focus that is the real problem. The film is slow and jumbled. It is paced poorly and not well edited. The story follows the book's plot more closely than the first film and concentrates on the narrator's story rather than on Stark himself. For a ninety minute movie, that is certainly a mistake. The tragic story of Willy Stark needs to be the focal point of the film, as much more gets confusing and tangled. First time director Steven Zaillian's effort to weave into the plot Warren's complex commentary on the demise of the southern aristocracy is clearly a bridge too far.

Further, for what I suspect were political reasons, the film downplays the tragic corruption of Willy Stark. Sean Penn and James Carville (the film's political adviser) would be naturally sympathetic of any politician who rises out of the poor, rural south on a populist wave. But to then admit that such a character is contemptibly corrupt seems difficult for them. They tend to downplay this key aspect of the story in order to avoid offending their own political sensibilities. Yet the corruption of Willy Stark is the story of All the Kings Men, and with it diminished, the film tends to wander like a ship without a rudder.

Likewise, the movie downplays the moral demise of Stark that accompanies his political corruption. In the book and the first movie, Stark's descent into moral degradation, through drinking and womanizing, enhances the tragic nature of the character. But apparently in contemporary Hollywood, where moral values are almost completely absent, Stark's loss of a moral compass cannot be fully explored. Ironically, the narrator's choice not to bed the female lead is given great prominence in the story line, as if such "abnormal" behavior speaks volumes.

The movie ends, of course, with the death of the Willy Stark, and there is some nice symbolism in the streams of blood that flow together on the floor of the Louisiana State House. But one has to think that contemporary politics, particularly in a post Hurricane Katrina world, were a significant reason for Penn and Carville getting involved with this project. And given that Louisiana remains the only state still in the hands of the old Dixiecrats, one has to ask what this movie's message is to a contemporary audience.

Are we to assume that Willy Stark had no impact at all and that it is business as usual in the Louisiana State House? Should we believe that contemporary Democrat politics in Louisiana are still as corrupt and elitist as they were in the days before and during Stark's rule? Or is Penn saying that the old patronage system has somehow changed by the rise and tragic fall of Stark, even though it was his own corruption that brought him down?

At the end of the day, this movie fails at least in part because it can't be understood within the context of contemporary Louisiana, and one of the biggest news events of the decade. So in a way, there is a wry irony for Mr. Penn in the failure of this film. To promulgate the notion that corruption is at the heart of Louisiana politics undermines Penn's perception of who was to blame for the Katrina response. But to not do so wrecks his movie.