A vote for change

Instead of adapting the remake of All the King's Men to mirror today's political issues, the filmmaker relies too much on the original.

Published September 21, 2006

Why resurrect a 60-year-old political drama if it has nothing to say about today? Robert Penn Warren published All the King's Men in 1946, decades before real-life scandals opened our eyes to fat-cat corruption and populists posing for votes. His fictional antihero politician Willie Stark is a piker compared to crooks who came later.

Steven Zaillian's remake of 1949's Academy Award-winning film declares that politics is dirty business and nobody comes out clean.

Forgive us if we don't stop the presses for that "news."

What puzzles most about the new version is that it doesn't stir any anger or energy that could be channeled into current political debate. Odd, considering that Democratic Party bulldog James Carville co-produced and liberal activist Sean Penn stars.

One problem is that the material is terribly dated; Warren based his book on the rise of Louisiana governor Huey Long, suggesting that rallying common folks against political machines, while necessary, can go too far. We have lived through enough of these types since then - George Wallace and Strom Thurmond come to mind - that the warning has lost its sting.

Now we could use someone to shake up the system as Long did. So seeing Stark's tragedy becoming a pessimistic suggestion that whatever citizens do, the corruptors always win.

Another problem is that Zaillian's adapted screenplay shifts the focus away from Stark Penn, making his marginally loyal assistant Jack Burden (Jude Law) the center of the story, as did Warren. Burden tells someone early that he prefers watching the political process from a distant, uninvolved vantage. Unfortunately, Zaillian's take on All the King's Men works the same way.

The movie begins with now-governor Stark, Burden and a bodyguard (Jackie Earle Haley) paying a late-night visit to someone whose political view needs changing. Who and why become clear later.

But the point is that the Stark, sitting in the front seat, heavy-lidded from booze and railing against opponents, has become the political monster he campaigned against. How he got to that point is sketchily described in an extended flashback beginning five years earlier.

Stark rises from a country accountant in a poor parish who protests graft in the bidding for a school building project. He loses that battle but gains respect after shoddy construction leads to the deaths of three students. Zaillian skips over details that the 1949 version provided, robbing viewers of witnessing the grass roots allegiance taking shape, like sheep rallied by a wolf.

Campaign fixer Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) sees Stark as gubernatorial material, although he's secretly hoping the candidate splits the rural vote, allowing the incumbent to be re-elected.

Burden explains the plot to Stark, who responds first by hitting the bottle and then by taking swings at the system. He paints himself as a "redneck hick" just like his voting base, promising new roads, highways and schools everyone needs. All the King's Men briefly catches fire with a montage of Stark's campaign speeches, full of timeless rabble-rousing and lower-class hope for the boonies.

Almost immediately after winning, though, Stark becomes the enemy with slick suits and shifty plans. Where is the turning point toward corruption that Warren warned us to recognize in others? It is buried somewhere in the film's distractions: Burden's pining for a childhood crush (Kate Winslet) and a wilting relationship with his godfather (Anthony Hopkins), a former judge wary of Stark's intent. It is unbelievable that Carville and Penn didn't urge sticking with Stark's dramatic arc, where sobering points about today's political climate might have been made.

Zaillian's script is too reverential of the novel, cramming loads of Warren's prose into Burden's voiceovers and crocodile-smile debates among characters. The movie is often like a book-on-CD with handsomely designed pictures. The dialogue is sharp but the issues are quaint, begging to be somehow connected to current, more complex questions of where or when power lies.

This is choice material for actors, although few create or sustain decent Southern accents. Penn is raspy and intense, mimicking Broderick Crawford's Oscar-winning bluster in the original but also slipping into fluttery gestures suggesting Stark's drunkenness; he's a much happier drunk than Crawford and therefore not as menacing.

His co-stars bring appropriate gravity (Hopkins) or bulk (Gandolfini) suiting their roles but hearing an Englishman and Tony Soprano faking drawls is distracting. Winslet has nothing to do for the first hour and does only slightly more with her character after that.

History has rendered All the King's Men less timeless than Warren intended, which is why Zaillian should have taken a few risks. Perhaps a modern setting would stoke our passions, or maybe just spotlight Stark's commoner influence rather than Burden's melodrama.

The movie is like one of those surveys asking voter opinions on important issues. Zaillian checks the "don't know" box; hardly scintillating political commentary.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com


All the King's Men

Grade: C+

Director: Steven Zaillian

Cast: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Jackie Earle Haley

Screenplay: Steven Zaillian, based on the novel by Robert Penn Warren

Rating: PG-13; violence, profanity, partial nudity

Running time: 130 min.