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
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
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
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.
to The American Conservative
(because I don't post my magazine reviews online until long after
the films have come and gone)