Kingfish for a Day

All the King's Men

reviewed by Steve Sailer

The American Conservative, October 23, 2006

 

At the 2005 Oscars, host Chris Rock asked, "Who is Jude Law? Why is he in every movie I have seen the last four years? Even the movies he's not acting in, if you look at the credits, he made cupcakes or something. He's gay, he's straight, he's American, he's British. Next year he's playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar."
 
In response, an even more than usually pompous Sean Penn defended Law on TV as "one of our finest actors." This ensured a slagging by film critics of the new version of "All the King's Men," in which Penn plays the Huey Long-inspired populist demagogue Willie Stark and Law his enervated aristocrat press secretary Jack Burden, who can never quite decide whether that's a gleam or a glint in his boss' eye.
 
Surprisingly, after endless editing, "All the King's Men" turns out to be an intelligent, serious film with memorable dialogue, which writer-director Steven Zaillian (who wrote "Schindler's List") largely lifted straight from the book. The famous 1946 novel by poet Robert Penn Warren tends toward the lyrically overripe when Burden narrates, but comes alive when Stark opens his mouth, furnishing as many superb lines as we're likely to hear in 2006.
 
While the new film is not as effective as the 1949 Best Picture version (with an Oscar-winning turn by Broderick Crawford), it is more artistically ambitious. Its flaws are frustratingly numerous, but not fatal.
 
The critics are annoyed that Zaillian has made a Southern political movie that isn't a blatant allegory about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or Hurricane Katrina. (The film does unintentionally offer insights into another oil-rich populist, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez.) Instead, Zaillian sticks faithfully to the novel.
 
But what a true story Warren had to fictionalize! Huey Long was both the most manic dynamo in American politics since Teddy Roosevelt, and a sardonic observer of his own confounding and increasingly sinister career. He rightly observed, "Listen, there are smarter guys than I am, but not in Louisiana."
 
When Long was elected governor in 1928, Louisiana had the second highest illiteracy rate in the nation and only 300 miles of paved road. In his heroic first two years in office, Long poured money into sensible investments in the state's under-utilized human and physical capital: free textbooks, adult literacy, hospitals, roads, and bridges.
 
To pay for them, he tried to tax Standard Oil, which "had enough money burn a wet mule," but he was impeached by the old guard. After narrowly surviving, he devoted the rest of his short life to waging war on his political enemies.
 
The only state that employs the Code Napoleon, Louisiana lacks what Alexander Hamilton praised as "that temperate love of liberty, so essential to real republicanism" more often found in states with an English political heritage. Even as Long grew bored with promoting their welfare, Louisiana's common folk stood by him, allowing him to evolve into a democratic dictator with near absolute power.
 
In 1935, Long was assassinated by a well-bred young doctor for reasons that have never been conclusively explained.

To make sense of the killer's motives, Warren invented a Southern Gothic subplot about an idealistic yet decadent coterie of the gentry who collide with the governor fatally. Warren imagined himself as Stark's right-hand man, Jack Burden, a former scholar who drowns his lyrical soul with bourbon to forget how his master bends him to his will. Burden's story eventually develops some genuinely tragic momentum, but when it does, the film inevitably ends up featuring less of the ferocious Penn and more of the merely adequate Law.
 
Zaillian blundered by slathering on the gloom from the opening frame, with a lighting scheme reminiscent of Tim Burton's grotesquely nocturnal "Batman Returns." James Horner's score is especially portentous. Instead, Zaillian should have played the first half of the story as a comic triumph, in the manner of "The Man Who Would Be King," only to turn tragic as Stark is corrupted absolutely.
 
You might as well wait, however, for the DVD so you can watch it with the subtitles turned on. The flamboyance of the dialogue combined with the all-star cast's various attempts at Louisiana accents render many lines incomprehensible.

Oddly enough, the only actual Southerner, Patricia Clarkson, might be the most unintelligible. In contrast, Sir Anthony Hopkins, as always, makes no effort whatsoever to adapt his Old Vic diction to his American character, and thus is, as always, perfectly understandable.
 
Rated PG-13.

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