All the King’s Men dramatizes the rise and fall of a charismatic politician with a winning common touch whose good works are overshadowed by scandal and whose reputation is disgraced by impeachment. Ergo, a mention of Bill Clinton is hard to resist, even if the Clinton I have in mind at the moment is the then Arkansas governor who nearly derailed his political future at the 1988 Democratic convention, while the then Texas treasurer Ann Richards — the late, great — enhanced her career with a speech as rousing as Clinton’s was stultifying. Because writer-director Steven Zaillian’s version stultifies too, especially when compared with Robert Rossen’s fiery 1949 Oscar winner. How could such dullness defeat the retelling, when Willie Stark is one of the most vivid characters in 20th-century American popular culture?
Robert Penn Warren, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel on which both movies are based, modeled his fictional politician after Louisiana’s real, outsize governor Huey Long. Stark is a self-described Southern ”hick” who marshals the votes of fellow hicks to rise from hayseed obscurity to great power. But having tasted that power, and having learned that bad can’t easily be separated from good when it comes to politicking, the complicated Stark (motivated in fair measure by grassroots idealism) soon can’t distinguish worthy ends from corrupt means. Emboldened by success, Stark’s rage at the elites who used to mock him as a ”sacrificial goat” overtakes him, and he becomes a monster even as he builds the people roads, schools, and hospitals. And having transformed his administration into something close to a dictatorship, he falls, a bigheaded Humpty Dumpty, at the hands of an inevitable American counterrevolution.
Sean Penn never has to go far to tap into rage. As a fledgling politician manipulated by political cronies (including James Gandolfini as a backroom power broker), his Stark tries a scene or two of humility, with his hair springing up from his head like wood smoke and his speech favoring a Dead Man Walking drawl, about how he drinks orange soda pop because ”the wife don’t favor drinkin.”’ But clearly Penn is itching to segue into full-blown righteous apoplexy. Zaillian has said that he made a point of not watching Rossen’s version, which is too bad — the filmmaker might have studied how to match the heat of the political cautionary tale with equally steamed-up personal subplots, something weirdly imbalanced in the new version.
Penn, on the other hand, appears to have done some viewing homework, cataloging the components of Broderick Crawford’s blazing Oscar-winning performance before coming up with his own even more ornate personification of idealism twisted into demagoguery. Penn orates in gumbo cadences as he leads the crowd in a rally chant of ”Nail ‘em up! Nail ‘em up!” (referring to those who would get in Stark’s way). Meanwhile, all around him, Penn’s costars retract in defeat. Most recessive of all is a daintified Jude Law as Jack Burden, the dabbling newspaper reporter of genteel Southern lineage who becomes Stark’s staffer, his pawn, and the story’s narrator. Tripped up by his own distracting Britishness, the actor has also been cheated of much of the steamy melodrama embraced by John Ireland in the original. Patricia Clarkson plays spin doctor Sadie Burke — a Mary Matalin before her time — with an unusable excess of refinement, and none of Mercedes McCambridge’s riveting banked craziness. As Anne Stanton, the rich debutante drawn by Willie’s magnetism and turned off by Jack’s mildness, Kate Winslet likewise eschews the streak of fine Southern hooey previously displayed by Joanne Dru, at the character’s expense. That Anthony Hopkins coasts with one of his lazily highfalutin’ Welsh-accented Wise Elder performances as the tragically upstanding Judge Irwin captures everything screwy about casting big-name stars for their big names rather than their suitability, then abandoning them to solve (or be criticized for failing to solve) the problems inherent in those market-driven casting decisions.
Clinton operative James Carville is listed as an executive producer of this All the King’s Men, and it’s easy to see why the salty political pro would be drawn to the material. Why then scrape all the spice from the meat — serving, as Zaillian does, a movie of so much blander political and, for that matter, novelistic proportions? It’s as if the producers feared audiences don’t favor flavor.