"What you don't know won't hurt you," Jack Burden narrates in the opening scene, as he contemplatively stares at the ceiling. "They call it idealism, in a book I read."
Idealism was the force that shaped the 20th century, and post-WWII Louisiana was not immune from its allure. But idealism rarely survives its first bad winter, and it's then that revolutionaries must question when the ends no longer justify the means. Article continues below
This doubt pervades Steven Zaillian
's well-played but often tedious adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, a Pulitzer-winning novel that had already seen screen time three years after its publication in 1946. Based on the life of Gov. Huey Long, one of America's most colorful populists and egomaniacs, Zaillian's version follows a people's revolt through the eyes of a man romanced by a cause that compels him to bring down everything that was ever important to him.
That man, Jack (a sullen Jude Law
), begins as a New Orleans newspaper columnist who finds a story in Willie Stark (Sean Penn
), a small-town treasurer futilely attempting to expose corruption via arithmetic and pie charts. When that same corruption turns deadly in the form of a school disaster, a political fixer (James "Tony Soprano" Gandolfini
) convinces Stark to ride his newfound heroism to the governor's mansion. But Stark soon recognizes that his candidacy is just a ruse to "split the cracker vote" and assure reelection for Standard Oil's friendly Republican, so he throws away the script and wins over his fellow "lickspittle redneck hicks" at county fairs and bayou clearings across the state. As Stark's campaign picks up steam, Jack joins the revolution but soon must play dirty to assure his man's political survival.
Jack, like so many revolutionaries, came not from the poverty he seeks to ameliorate but from an aristocracy he seeks to leave behind, and Stark's unwashed war on the wealthy doesn't sit well with Jack's family, including his influential godfather (Anthony Hopkins
), who softly targets Stark for impeachment. Meanwhile, Stark sets the hooks even deeper by bringing Jack's best friend and unconsummated love of his life Anne (Kate Winslet
) and her ornery brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo
) into his administration, with explosive results.
Suspend your disbelief at watching a movie full of Brits and Midwesterners forcing Louisiana accents with varying degrees of success. To his credit, Hopkins doesn't even try.
As with his prior directorial work (A Civil Action), Zaillian's pacing ranges between galloping and glacial. After Stark's swift election to governor and early battles with the Louisiana power structure, All the King's Men loses its momentum in the second hour. Or maybe it's the third hour. Although supposedly clocking in at exactly 120 minutes, All the King's Men feels longer than a cable miniseries. The drab visual palette with which Zaillian chooses to paint the screen – an odd choice for such a colorful state and politician – doesn't help.
But if you're bored by All The King's Men, it's not Sean Penn's fault. When he takes stage in front of his people, Penn emotes like a preacher loaded with the Holy Spirit, venom, and cocaine. Stark knows full well that his passion and personality are his only weapons against the old powers that be, and Penn lights up Stark's every scene with manic energy.
The other scenes, meh. It's a shame to see Zaillian corrupt his snappy script with his own heavy filmmaking. But that's idealism for you.