All The Kings Men (2006)

As the designated observer of his friend's decline, not to mention a reporter by vocation, Jack's lack of insight or anticipation also looks a bit silly.

All The King's Men

Director: Steven Zaillian
Cast: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Columbia Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-09-22 (General release)

Willie Stark (Sean Penn) drinks his orange pop with two straws. This detail comes up more than once in All the King's Men. At first, the pop suggests Willie's country-bumpkinish predilection and essential decency, as he eschews whiskey in order to follow his dear wife's tee-totaling wishes. But it's not long before the pop takes on other meanings, in particular as Willie's narrator -- the odiously named Jack Burden (Jude Law) -- adopts the habit. As a decision, a studied pose, the pop-drinking becomes a sign of rebellion, a declaration of independence from the political "machine" that means to contain all who aspire to power or change.

Jack's declaration is by definition derivative and so, not quite "independent." Telling his own story as he tells Willie's, Jack reveals his own culpability, even his emulation of his employer. But this frame is a problem for Steve Zaillian's long-delayed movie adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's famous novel, in that Jack's protestations of integrity are unconvincing, and worse, banal.

In part, Jack's burden is temporal, which is to say, cultural and political. The 1946 novel (as well as Robert Rossen's first movie adaptation, released in 1949) emerged at a moment when personal and public corruptions still seemed horrible, indications of moral and emotional weaknesses. Today, cynicism and dishonesty are built into systems of governance and campaigning. As a result, Jack's disappointment at discovering Willie's various depravities now looks more naïve than honorable. It's like he hasn't been paying attention. As the designated observer of his friend's decline, not to mention a reporter by vocation, Jack's lack of insight or anticipation also looks a bit silly. His listeners, even those who don't know the story, see the end coming long before he does.

From the start, Jack takes a complicated sort of high road: the camera looks down on him as he lies in his bed, describing the pursuit of "truth" in terms both ethical and professional. He pronounces that such pursuit must be premised on a belief in its potential benefit, alluding already to the great harm that befalls most everyone in the film who uncovers secrets. What he leaves out here is the film's more compelling lesson, that this so-called truth is a fiction.

That Jack appears to miss this crucial point makes his own story feel protracted, an effect exacerbated by Penn's remarkable, peculiar, and fits-and-startsy performance as Willie. First appearing as a shy, well-intentioned fellow who drinks pop according to local Louisiana custom, Willie is possessed of a seeming natural gift for rousing audiences. Encouraged to run a campaign for governor by the upstate machine wrangler Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), Willie no sooner learns that he's being manipulated to generate a win for a profoundly better-funded opponent than he discovers his brilliant oratorical voice. He throws out his prepared speech, points out Tiny as the villain, and, as James Horner's score builds to predictable "uplift," Willie pronounces to his audience of country fair "hicks" that he means to campaign on his own terms, to build roads, schools, and bridges, and generally look after the poor folks as no other politician has done.

As your stand-in, Jack watches this speech, which soon becomes a montage of the most pedestrian sort, where integrated crowds grow in size, raising their fists, and Willie repeatedly waves his arms in an awkward display of passion. All the King's Men uses such shorthand to suggest Willie's success as a man of the people, and then, as soon as he's installed as governor, accusations abound as to his corruption. In order to fight back, it appears, Willie adopts blackmail as a tactic, and his campaigning-now-governing workers go along, including his lover Sadie (Patricia Clarkson), Tiny (brought back into the fold because of his questionable skills as a planner and bully), and a loyal, scary-faced gunsel named Sugar Boy (Jackie Earle Haley).

Though the film doesn't delve into whether Willie is involved in graft to the degree his detractors claim, it makes abundantly clear that he lapses into personal corruption by way of a prodigious sexual appetite. Jack watches him audition girls with athletic abilities (ice skaters, dancers), then trundle off to have what might be grand or terrifically dull sex (Jack doesn't see this part). For Jack, the promiscuity is damning in itself, as he remains loyal to the idea of his one true love, the lovely and etherealish Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet).

Even when he's drinking or delirious, Willie is more appealing than Jack, whose detours into his own gothic background take the movie off rails. When he starts remembering his childhood (learning to shoot with the help of his godfather, Judge Irwin [Anthony Hopkins]) and adolescence (involving predictable rage at his alcoholic, four-times-married mother [Kathy Baker]), the film turns almost unbearably trite.

The major trauma for Jack has to do with his infatuation with Anne and friendship with her devastatingly idealistic brother Adam (Mark Ruffalo), rendered in conventionally hazy flashbacks. In an egregiously "poignant" memory, the boys look on while Anne walks naked into a lake, the moonlight shimmering on the water, silhouetting her perfect form. As much as this image haunts Jack, it pummels you. He's torn up by his love for a girl who goes wrong, feels responsible for her downfall, and can't imagine a world that doesn't revolve around him. Distrusting its audience to follow even this most conventional of stories, All the King's Men finally feels more like a burden than revelation.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.