All the King's Men offers a mouthwatering cast and some impressive moments, but can't put it togetherCranking out movies in the immediate wake of a successful book is no modern development. All the King’s Men won a Pulitzer in 1947, and the hit film version came out two years later. And by “hit,” I’m talking about a virtual plundering of the Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Broderick Crawford) and Best Supporting Actress (Mercedes McCambridge — also known as the “Your mother sucks cocks in Hell” voice from The Exorcist).
Based loosely on the story of Louisiana’s Governor Huey Long, All the King’s Men follows the rise of Willie Stark, a populist rabble-rouser who galvanizes the vote among the working class by promising them the world. When he gets into office, he runs wild with women, taxes the rich, and goes head-to-head with the oil and electric companies, who conspire to get rid of him by having the well-regarded Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins, who manages to exude both kindliness and a serious don’t-fuck-with-me vibe) call for his impeachment. We see everything through the eyes of reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law, who narrates throughout with a strained wisp of Southern drawl), who is eventually pulled into Stark’s orbit as his personal assistant, even though he happens to be a friend of the judge. As Burden becomes increasingly compromised, he’s eventually forced to choose between friendship and his sense of duty to the corrupt governor.
While the 2006 adaptation of this classic political yarn boasts some commendable performances, its chances of it joining its cinematic predecessor as Best Picture seem about as likely as a Green Party president. It isn’t for lack of trying, though: This flick is nothing if not ambitious, centered around Penn’s thundering, wallpaper-peeling performance as Stark. But to paraphrase a quote uttered by Burden: Something about it bothered me, like an unseen offstage noise.
For one thing, every time Stark makes a speech — and that’s like every 15 minutes once things get going — the music comes in halfway through and rises with the intensity of the oration, climaxing with Penn flailing his arms, the rabble thoroughly roused. It’s a strong contrast to Law’s quiet cynicism — these two seem about as comfortable in the same film together as George W. Bush would be at a cocktail party thrown by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Each approach is impressive on its own terms, but the combination makes for some bumpy dynamics and clumsy pacing. I’m well aware that the tension is the very engine of what makes the book hum, but that’s all the more reason it should be finely tuned for the film adaptation, and not burping and spurting all over the place. Ultimately, the dynamic between Stark and Burden comes off like a battle waged not so much to advance the story as to flag the attention of the Oscar folks.
All the King’s Men is worth seeing on the strength of its powerful, vivid cinematography and its excellent cast alone. (And if Jamie Foxx can win Best Actor for an execrable romp like Ray, well, by all means, hand that motherfucker to Penn for this one.) It’s just that somewhere between the stirring populist political fable of Stark and the dark internal struggle of Burden, Zaillian has left an amazing movie hanging in the air, elusive and maddeningly just out of reach.