© 2006 Ray Wong
A remake of the 1949 film which was also based on Robert Penn Warren's novel, All the King's Men is a political drama that continues to resonate with today's world, especially in light of what is going on down in New Orleans this past year.
Willie Stark (Penn) is an honest southern man who wants to do right by the people of his home state Louisiana. Slick politician Duffy (Gandolfini) convinces Stark to run for governor, hoping he would help split the votes. When Stark realizes he is being played for a fool, he vows to never let anyone shove him around, and proceeds to win the election on his own terms.
As Governor, Stark hires journalist Jack Burden (Law) to be his eyes and ears. While Stark and his policies are popular with the poor, he is hated by the rich and powerful. His progressive plans for infrastructures and programs do not sit well with the big oil, old money. When Judge Irwin (Hopkins), who happens to be Jack's godfather, decides to lead a charge to impeach the Governor, Stark asks Jack to help him stop the man by digging up dirt on the good judge. Caught between Stark and Irwin, in a web that includes his first love, Anne (Winslet), and best friend, Adam (Ruffalo) -- both children of ex-Governor Stanton -- Jack must question where his loyalty lies.
Led by Penn (The Interpreter), the cast is generally superb. Penn has the fire, energy and charisma to pull it off as the ambitious Gov. Stark, a character who wants to do good but gets sucked into the dirty deals and corruption of politics. He's neither a good or bad person, and Penn succeeds in keeping it real. Law (The Aviator) exudes certain southern, boyish charm playing a character that is in search of a moral stand. Curiously, for an English bloke, Law always has a good time playing southerners with a drawl, just as he did in Cold Mountain or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
Fellow Brits Winslet (Finding Neverland) and Hopkins (Proof) are good in their minor but pivotal roles as Anne Stanton and Judge Irwin respectively. Hopkins, in particular, commands the screen whenever he's on. Ruffalo (Rumor Has It) is the weakest link as Anne's brooding, reclusive brother. For some reason, he's simply not convincing in the role. Meanwhile, Clarkson (Good Night and Good Luck) and Gandolfini (Lonely Hearts) have good fun playing politics.
Writer-director Zaillian (Search for Bobby Fischer) starts the story well enough, giving us an insight into the characters and how, in particular, Stark and Jack got involved in this political cat and mouse game. Then Zaillian loses his focus. As the narrator, Jack Burden is a good observer, but not a protagonist. He would serve as the neutral moral core in this political drama. Willie Stark -- loosely based on Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long -- is such a stronger, more interesting and conflicted character. When Zaillian switches the film's focus to Jack and his back stories with Anne and Adam Stanton, the story loses steam and become shaky.
The problem is that we never really understand what Jack Burden and his journey are about. We do get his motivation -- he wants to do good, too -- but it's never strong enough for us to believe in his action. In comparison, we understand Stark, his causes, his plight, and his demons. Adding to the confusion is the entangled relationships between Jack, Anne and Adam. The story would have been stronger if Zaillian had focused on the political suspense and central conflict among Jack, Stark, and Judge Irwin.
While the script fails to hold everything together or give us a strong narrative center, Zaillian does succeed in giving us a powerful production with gorgeous period details and intrigues. The cinematography by Pawel Edelman (Ray, Oliver Twist) impresses, as do the set design, art direction, costumes, and lighting. It's a meticulous production, which I predict would garner a few Oscar nods. It's just a shame that such good work is marred by a sub-par script that doesn't do the Nobel-winning novel justice.
Stars: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Anthony Hopkins, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini
Director: Steven Zaillian
Writer: Steven Zaillian (based on Robert Penn Warren's novel)
Distributor: Sony Pictures
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity
Running Time: 120 minutes
Script – 6
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 7
Production – 8
Total – 6.7 out of 10