Producing a serious political thriller is a rare enough achievement these days, so one is tempted to excuse the flaws in Steven Zaillian’s “All the King’s Men,” a film loosely based on the rise and fall of Louisiana’s populist governor Huey P. Long. Nevertheless, the film feels like it lost several crucial segments on the editing room floor. Thirty minutes into the film, you’ll be scratching your head, wondering who several of the main characters are supposed to be. In the final reel, entire subplots just disappear up in smoke, leaving the unpleasant feeling that you’ve been jerked around for the past two hours.
Zaillian should know better. Best known for the Oscar he got for his screenplay for “Schindler’s List,” he’s also worked on screenplays for films as diverse as “A Clear and Present Danger” and “Gangs of New York,” while directing “Searching for Bobby Fisher” and “A Civil Action.” The man certainly knows how to do tight, polished plotting, so it’s a mystery why “All the King’s Men” comes off so slipshod.
The film’s source is the 1946 novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren, which had already been brought to the screen in 1949 with Robert Rossen’s Oscar-winning version. No doubt the tale felt more relevant then; Huey Long’s career as a working-class hero was recent history, and the politics he espoused were still on the table. Some 70-plus years after Long’s death, the specifics are less pertinent, so Zaillian goes for a more “mythic” approach, the results of which are somewhat overblown.
More damningly, the film can’t seem to decide whose story it’s telling. The first half focuses on the rise to power of Willie Stark (Sean Penn), a former low-ranking politico who turns into a crusader against corruption and vested interests. After he takes a principled stand against bid-rigging, he’s urged to run by Tiny Duffy, a political “fixer” of some sort, though we’re never sure of what kind, while the actor playing the role — James Gandolfini of “The Sopranos” — practically screams organized crime.
Stark’s campaign starts off tame, but when he realizes he’s got nothing to lose, he metamorphoses into a fire-breathing rabble-rouser. Penn is in his element here, ranting against big oil with an overripe Southern accent: “Ain’t nobody ever hepped a hick other than a hick hissef!” The hicks vote him into office, where he starts to practice the same dirty politics for Robin Hood goals, rewarding his supporters and crushing his opponents.
Parallel to this story is that of Jack Burden (Jude Law), a reporter who covers Stark’s campaign, and then joins the team, digging up dirt on Stark’s political enemies. Unlike Stark, who grew up on a hog farm, Burden is a child of privilege, and Stark soon has him turning on the linen-suited rich folk he grew up with.
Burden’s tale takes over the second half of the film to the extent that Stark’s becomes irrelevant. And on top of this comes an extensive subplot involving Burden’s childhood friends Anne and Adam Stanton (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo). There are about three different movies in here, and all of them seem confused and not too compelling.
Take Patricia Clarkson’s character, Sadie Barke. Exactly who she’s supposed to be is never made clear. She appears to be some kind of campaign manager or adviser, but the exposition is thrown out so fast and furious, it flies right by. Later in the film, several important plot points turn on the fact she’s having on affair with the governor, but there’s never even a scene of the two of them together to suggest this. Like so many parts of the film, it feels like there’s something missing here. Ditto for the governor’s thuggish, gun-toting bodyguard, Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley), a figure of menace throughout the film who ends up with nothing to do. The dirty secrets he carries are implied but never revealed.
The plot-lines are so scattered and diverse, the viewer is left trying to muddle through what it’s all about. Two hours just to tell us simply that all politics is corrupt and, as Stark puts it, “ain’t nothing but dirt on God’s green Earth.” Or is it some kind of Oedipal thing, with fatherless Burden sucking up to surrogate-dad Stark while turning against his actual godfather, the anti-Stark Judge Irwin (played by Anthony Hopkins)? Or is it simply an exercise in style, a lavish homage to “Citizen Kane,” “Chinatown,” and expressionist film noir, with an extra heaping dollop of every Southern Gothic film cliche?
The presence of Clinton adviser James Carville — a Southerner himself — as the film’s producer, together with the participation of outspoken leftie Penn, suggests an endorsement of Huey Long/Willie Stark’s tax-big-oil and school-the-poor policies. Yet Long was a demagogue who was rightly compared to Mussolini, a man whose respect for open government and an honorable opposition was less than that of George W. Bush. What does the film want to say? Only Zaillian knows, and he ain’t telling.