- Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
- Sean Penn stars as Willie Stark in All the King's Men
The Scottish poet Roberts Burns wrote, "The best-laid schemes of mice and men/ Often go awry/ And leave us nought but grief and pain/ For promised joy."
Such would be an appropriate epitaph for Willie Stark, the protagonist at the heart of Robert Penn Warren's luminous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men, a literary roman à clef based on the life of Huey Long, Louisiana's iconic, Depression-era governor and senator.
In both print and director Robert Rossen's Academy Award-winning 1949 film adaptation starring Broderick Crawford, Stark is portrayed as an exemplar of the duality of man. He is a political socialist who runs for office as a populist, armed for class warfare between the poor, disenfranchised masses he champions and the wealthy oil and gas industrialists who prey upon them.
Stark's path to power is paved with good intentions, but his political glory quickly turns to vainglory as he succumbs to the corrosive influence of power. He exercises his authority to accomplish much while also dispatching friends and enemies alike based on political expedience. In the end, his spirit and life succumbs to the same corrupt system he once fought.
Sadly, Burns' verse also befits writer-director Steven Zaillian's newest version of All the King's Men, finally coming to theaters after nearly a yearlong delay. This film has all the earmarks of Oscar bait, what with the involvement of Schindler's List scribe Zaillian as writer and director and an absolutely star-studded cast that includes Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Patricia Clarkson and Mark Ruffalo. In our uncertain, divisive political times, the movie bore the potential of a tome on the perils of government and the fragilities of the people who run it.
Instead, Zaillian's finished product is a bloated misfire of epic proportions, plagued at virtually every turn by missteps in editing, scriptwriting, perception of its source material and, yes, even casting. It is a boring movie populated by actors who, I could almost swear, appear to recognize the tedium of their endeavor.
Zaillian said he wanted to pattern his script as closely as possible on Warren's novel. One offshoot of that vow is making Law's Jack Burden the central protagonist. Burden, a disenchanted journalist and scion to an aristocratic Southern family, joins Stark's administration as its resident press agent and muckraker. We witness Stark's ascension from Burden's point of view, but primarily in the context of Burden's personal travails, which range from the inner conflict of digging up dirt on his father-figure, Judge Irwin (Hopkins), to reminiscing on his erstwhile romance with Anne Stanton (Winslet), daughter of a popular ex-governor.
While this may be an effective literary device, Rossen recognized that Stark's character arc, not Burden's, is most thematically crucial and shifted the spotlight accordingly in his 1949 film. It is the same formula followed in other similar cinematic character studies, from Orson Welles' Citizen Kane to Elia Kazan's A Face in the Crowd.
More inexplicable is Zaillian's choice to shift the setting from the 1930s, as was the case in the novel and Rossen's film, to the 1950s. The director suggested that he based this decision on a desire to make the film seem less distant and more relevant to today's audiences. Notwithstanding the flaws in this assessment, the pre-Depression economy and policies of the Hoover administration largely drove Long's and, ergo, Stark's mass popularity and the connection their anti-establishment rhetoric made with the poor and working class. Removing Stark from this context removes much of the impetus behind why a backwater novice was able to so quickly ascend the political ranks.
It is also indicative of an emotional disconnect that is noticeable from the very first scene of the film and runs throughout a two-hour running time that feels way too long--but is probably not long enough, given some obvious editing decisions that truncated essential character development and plotlines.
Most key events take place off-screen: Stark's election; the plot to take him down by those within his circle; and his affairs with Sadie Burke (Clarkson) and Anne Stanton (Stark barely shares any screen time with either woman). Viewers do not require a connect-the-dots screenplay, but they need to build an investment in the characters.
One of the few American leads, Sean Penn, is widely miscast as Willie Stark. Penn's slight frame, even bulked up and bloated for the role, does not evoke the larger-than-life presence integral to Stark's persona. Penn compensates by teasing up a madman's pompadour, flails about like a Tourette's sufferer whenever bellowing one of his interminable (and insufferable) speeches (each one punctuated by a crescendo in James Horner's cloying, truly awful score), and adopts a drawl that sounds like a drunken James Carville.
Zaillian also appears perplexed by how to treat his central figure. He introduces Stark as an idealist motivated to enter government by a desire to "do good." He also tracks the change in Stark's personality as he becomes acclimated to the rough-and-tumble world of politics. However, we never see the full deterioration of Stark's soul, his choice of self over selflessness. Stark continues to build bridges, pave roads and construct hospitals for his constituency. He makes tough, savvy choices to further his political ambitions and fight his adversaries, but nothing he does appears illegal or runs counter to what your run-of-the-mill politician does today to hold onto elected office.
Aside from a few trips to a strip club and a newfound taste for alcohol, Stark remains a populist at heart. Perhaps Zaillian and Penn were reluctant to demonize a liberal politician doing battle against the conservative and corporate establishment. But, it is an interpretation that ignores the real lessons to be gleaned from Willie Stark's rise and fall.
One of several people who spurred this remake was the real James Carville, a bayou native who consequently received a producer's credit. His involvement is ironic, since Billy Bob Thornton portrayed a Carville doppelganger in a far better contemporary update of Warren's book, Mike Nichol's underrated Primary Colors. Besides being notable as John Travolta's last exceptional performance, the Bill Clinton-based allegory captured the volatile mix of idealism, personal foibles and power-hunger saturating our political process with a deft balance of wit, foreboding, cynicism and hope.
Zallian's musty version is like receiving a greeting card from a stranger--the calligraphy portends the sentiment behind it, but you do not feel anything. That's a crack even all the king's men cannot put back together again.
All the King's Men is now playing in Triangle theaters.