"All the King's Men" was already a great film, but there were too many compromises to the Hays Code to get it to the screen. Steve Zaillian (a fine screenwriter, who directed a favorite film of mine "Searching for Bobby Fischer") decided to make a new film of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning book, and sadly, wasted the opportunity in a film convinced of its own importance.*
From the crack of thunder that appears before the opening credits, to the thudding James Horner score that telegraphs (with hammers) each imminent plot-point (Horner uses one dirge-like theme which, by its third appearance, I had assigned lyrics "This-is-a-sad-sto-ry/A-bout Lou-i-si-an-na"), to the subdued lighting and the art design in shades of "Godfather" mordant, everything about this movie promises great portent, but merely meanders through its story of how nothing born of corruption can come to any good, be it man, ideals or building materials.
It's a frustrating film to sit through, because the pieces are there given a less respectful (as in funeral respect) presentation. The cast is impressive. Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Hopkins play the well-to-do Stanton clan. Kathy Baker and Jude Law are the blighted Burden clan, and Sean Penn, looking more and more like an young George C. Scott, plays the fictional surrogate of Huey Long, Willie Stark. As his flaks and flunkies, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson and Jackie Earle Haley.
Good cast. But there are problems. Penn, as he is wont to do, goes over-the-top in his speechifying, his arms waiving wildly in the air, his fingers doing filigreed dances. Where Penn got the inspiration to play it this way is a mystery, as footage of Long in speech-mode (below) shows him much more in control. Not even Adolph Hitler emotes this much. Jude Law, never the strongest of actors, falls into the dreariness of the film, staring at the other actors or nothing-in-particular with sad doe-like eyes.** One suspects editing problems with this film—Zaillian did spend an inordinate amount of time in post-production on it. Subjects are brought up and dropped, like Stark's football-playing son, who figures prominently in the '48 film, is mentioned here and then never heard from again.*** We never do find out how Burden's mother acquires facts to make an accusation against him. Mark Ruffalo's character is left as a dissatisfying enigma.
What we do get is ponderous, and pretentious. Zaillian spends a lot of screen-time trying to show (visually) that the only thing that could unite the "hicks" and gentry of Louisiana is death. Again, that same lesson had been told in better films.
* Given the awards-history of the cast and screenwriter it was assumed that "All The King's Men" would be a top contender come Oscar-season, but its poor box-office reception scuttled those hopes.
** K (who likes Law) kept yelling out "accent-drop!" whenever his "Lawsiana" draw-el moved to Market Street. Anthony Hopkins, the sly old dog, doesn't even try.
*** Sadly, Zaillian, in an attempt to simplify his film, gutted some crucial scenes from it including the sub-plot about Stark's son, and an extended ending that provides the best scenes for Jude Law and Jackie Earle Haley.