All the King’s Men (2006): Steven Zaillian’s Poor (Unnecessary) Remake of 1949 Oscar Winner

I have not been out much lately, but I don’t recall a public outcry for a remake of All the King’s Men, one of Hollywood’s best political melodramas of the 1940s that won the 1949 Best Picture Oscar and other awards.
Read our review of the 1949 film

You may recall that Steven Zaillian’s new film was initially slated for Christmas 2005 release, then pushed back to this fall (the movie world-premiered in Toronto and is opening Sep. 22). For a whole year, there have been contradictory rumors in town about the picture, ranging from Sony’s official line that the movie was not ready, all the way to the notion that it was not good enough for the holiday season, which is prime Oscar time.

Alas, the negative word-of-mouth spread on the Internet turned out to be right, and Zaillian’s version is a major disappointment on many levels, narrative, setting, acting, and even visual and production design.

What went wrong Everything. “All the King’s Men” is a total misfire, a picture marred by misconception of the book, inexplicable shift of time frame from the 1930s to the 1950s, a muddled screenplay with crucial subplots and events that are underwritten, a glamorous but unsuitable cast (most of which is British), a glitzy style, grand production values, and swelling music that don’t fit the “dirty” story about politicos and journos and “sweaty” Louisiana milieu.

On paper, a film whose cast includes Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, and Patricia Clarkson sounds terrific–except that most of them are miscast. (The press notes single out the Oscar pedigree of the ensemble members, all of whom are Oscar-winners or Oscar-nominees).

For a uniquely American period film, set in the Deep South–sort of Southern Gothic–Zaillian’s decision to use a predominantly British cast was a mistake, resulting in a blend of accents; some of the thespians make a valiant effort to essay American dialect, others don’t even bother to try.

There’s also the problem of inexplicably shifting the time period, from the 1930s, the era in which Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer-prize novel and Robert Rossen’s 1949 movie are set, to the 1950s, based on Zaillian’s belief that anything prior to WWII will be perceived by the public as “nostalgic” and “sentimental.” (See Zaillian interview).

Problem is, the story and characters are too grounded in the particular socio-economic-political contexts of the Depression era, when Huey P. Long reigned supreme. The rationale for the change was to make the story less distant, or more contemporarily significant, but the shift only emphasizes more the film’s lack of specificity.

The project was originated by political consultant-celeb James Carville, and the politically-aware producer Mike Medavoy, who had passion for the project that somehow didn’t make it to the screen. The book has a grabbing storyline, but this “King’s Men” is amorphous and listless, lacking dramatic focus, energy, and nuance, which is baffling, considering the excitement of the numerous producers (see list below) and Zaillian’s skills as a gifted writer (Oscar-winner for “Schindler’s List”) and director (“Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “A Civil Action”).

Despite location shooting and well-intentioned goal to suggest relevancy to the American political process at present (this is, after all, an election year), this rendition lacks period authenticity and relevancy; the whole movie suffers from a detached approach that precludes emotional involvement with the saga or characters.

Stepping into a role so memorably created by Broderick Crawford (for which he won a well-deserved Actor Oscar), Sean Penn plays Willie Stark, the powerfully ambitious Southern politician, modeled on Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. Stark came close to showing the possibility of having a uniquely American brand of populist fascism. The original 1949 movie was cautionary tale, sort of, yes, it can happen here in the U.S.

For those unfamiliar with the book or first film version, “All the King’s Men” is the story of an idealist’s rise to power in the world of Louisiana politics, and the corruption that leads to his ultimate downfall. It’s a noirish saga about power, deceit, and betrayal. Using politics as a framework to delve into the human dilemmas of sin, guilt and redemption, it’s meant to explore the very nature and roots of corruption, political as well as personal.

Stark’s particular type of demagogue grew out of a rural region in a Southern state dominated by old-boy politics. The demographic basis of his power was composed of Southern poor and disenfranchised folks. Stark promises that, if elected, he’ll stick a pole through the rich old boys and cook them over an open pit.

Stark establishes direct, visceral rapport with the rank-and-file that the film fails to show. We seldom see Stark mixing up with the crowd in any meaningful way. On screen, the crowd is just that, a random aggregate of anonymous faces since they’re cast with extras; depicting one vivid encounter between Stark and his audience would have made a huge difference.

Played with ferocious energy and restless body movements by Sean Penn, Stark begins as a poor farm boy, a political small-timer, who’s manipulated by the operator Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini disappointingly doing a variation of his “Sopranos” role)) to run for governor in a covert attempt to split the vote and hand the election to the rich incumbent.

When Stark realizes the conceit, his anger motivates him to dig deep inside him and discover his true voice as an orator, publicly attacking Duffy along with the other phony Baton Rouge politicos. To defeat such men, Stark uses their own methods against them.

At first, Stark truly believes in the hopes of his fellow hicks, but he knows that he can’t accomplish his promises by playing a fair game.
Initially an idealist, a hick politician in a backward, God-forsaken region, Stark turns into a cynic who works outside the law, holding that his goals justify the use of any means, legit and illegit.

Enter disenchanted idealist and alcoholic journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), who’s the novel’s and movie’s voice of conscience. From Old Southern aristocracy himself, Burden joins Willie’s administration after he is elected.

Later, when he is threatened by impeachment, Stark asks Burden to dig up dirt on and smear Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), a prominent man in the community who also acted as surrogate father to Burden during the various marriages of his mother (Kathy Baker).

Burden’s reluctant work proves everyone’s undoing as he is forced to confront his own past, including his long lost love, the daughter of a former governor, Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), and her melancholy brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), the yarn’s only genuine idealist.

All along, Stark’s press officer and sometimes mistress Sadie (Patricia Clarkson, who assumes the Oscar-winning role of the great Mercedes McCambridge) jealously stirs the pot, while the low cunning Duffy prods everyone with his corrupt pragmatism.

Warren’s acclaimed book warned that, under the right circumstances and given the opportunity, we are all capable of corruption, hatred, and betrayal, that human nature is imperfect, that most people are neither good nor bad but fall somewhere in between. Warren showed how good intentions can get caught up in politics of the ugliest kind, how initial idealism becomes compromised by power, leading to tragic results for individual politicians, their constituencies, and the system at large.

As noted, Warren’s exploration of morality, inspired by the career of Louisiana governor Long and other political demagogues, has had a profound effect on contemporary literature, but Zaillians treatment is too stylized and removed, infusing the saga with more general classic noir elements, without capturing the unique essence of Warrens book.

For the Record

“All the King’s Men” enlists over ten producers or executive producers: Mike Medavoy, Arnold W. Messer, and Ken Lemberger in the former capacity, and Todd Phillips, Andreas Schmid, Michael Hausman, David Thwaites, James Carville, Andy Grosch, and Ryan Kavanaugh, in the latter. I have no idea what and how each producer contributed to the project, but it might point to the movie’s problematic, incoherent, and imprecise nature.