All the King’s Men
Disappointing Cinematic Mastery
All the King’s Men played out on the screen before me like a fresh spring breeze blowing through the eaves of the dark, sinister, slapdash forest that mainstream filmmaking has largely become. In this remade retelling of Robert Penn Warren’s fictionalization of depression-era Louisiana politics, director Steve Zaillian brings us not only a period film, but period filmmaking as well. But it’s not purely retro fawning: it’s inspired visual conception, with images crafted in ways that recall Preminger, Hitchcock, and Coppola; it’s a deftness with words that invoke the spirit of Mankiewicz and Faulkner; it’s subtle, classy performances that one might find in the better films of Howard, or Eastwood. This is a filmmaker’s film, one made by and for those who have steeped themselves in the traditions of the art. And Zaillian’s 124 minutes of celluloid mastery packs enough symbolism, beauty, and meaning to provide the grist for hours of satisfying discussions.
But here’s the rub. This is a film I truly enjoyed watching and discussing, yet ultimately didn’t care for.
The story concerns a small-town Louisiana political crusader catapulted into the governor’s office on the coattails of a populist movement. As the lone voice decrying corrupt and disastrous bid-fixing, Sean Penn’s Willie Stark draws the attention of politicos trying to splinter the state gubernatorial race. And when Stark actually musters enough grassroots, rural support to win the election, he inherits the state’s corrupt legacy and must find some way to deliver on his anti-shady-business-as-usual campaign speeches. The plot involves all the kinds of complications one would expect from such a classically composed tale: politicians with shady business dealings; femmes fatale; betrayals layered upon faux confidences; complex family loyalties and suspicions; dark, unsatisfied longings. Who’s using who? What’s real, and what’s only an illusion? What, exactly, will it be that ultimately brings this power struggle to an end?
Zaillian poses these questions and answers them with exquisite style. The film opens, for instance, with a lingering, panning, spinning zoom onto the Louisiana state seal, a visual metaphor for what the next two hours will reveal—that politics has turned the state upside down, that Stark (or someone else?) must turn things right again, and that one man’s right side up is another man’s deadly wrong. And the closing of the film, again using the state seal as the setting, brings all the political spinning full circle.
The tale is told from the viewpoint of one of Stark’s fixers, a sympathetic former journalist played by Jude Law. It’s through his eyes that we find out who’s who, and who’d doing who, and in what ways. In a day when most films adopt either an omniscient or nonexistent point of view, it’s a genuine treat to see Law doing what may be his finest work to date in bringing Jack Burden to life, in watching his worldly and weary cynicism be deflowered in such a grandly gothic fashion, with a specific (and realistically limited) point of view. He’s in a position to know the truth, but isn’t sure the digging is worth the effort or the consequences. He’s torn between an ethic that declares, “I’d rather sit here and watch” —knowing that little personal effort is required when “Time brings all things to light” —and the conviction that “The only way to not know is not wanting to know.” Yet nagging hints of truth are always there, both for Burden and Stark, “the way an offstage noise bothers you.”
And this is where the film’s problems come in, where small details disturbed me just like those offstage noises Burden described. First, Willie Stark, despite a heroic effort from Penn, never comes off as a fully realized character. We only know him to the extent that Jack Burden knows him—which isn’t very far. Ultimately, this is only problematic to the extent that one is uncomfortable with ambiguity; and clearly, Zaillian is more uncomfortable with that than I am, or, say, Clint Eastwood would be. Just as clearly, Zaillian thinks his audience will be just as uncomfortable, unnecessarily punctuating his film’s conclusion with exclamation-point flashbacks, as if to say, “Slick Willie Stark’s legacy must not be left to interpretation.” But Zaillian’s narrative structure precludes the kind of neat moralization that he nonetheless superimposes. Neither saints nor the degenerate are best painted from ambiguous pigments of our imaginations
But the film’s final scene is not the only flaw; it just confirms earlier off-stage distractions. For a film that is about shameful manipulation, both personal and political, Zaillian disingenuously and shamelessly pulls the audience’s strings. The music that swells behind Stark’s stump montage, for instance, shows little confidence in the character’s actual words or persona; and when Zaillian visually communicates that the new governor promises to cast a very large shadow in state politics, he does so with contrived lighting of which any first-year cinematography student should be ethically mortified. How can a front profile be projected by an oblique key light?
For good or ill, at least, All the King’s Men honors and reminds us of the glory of the cinema’s past, that “This time came from that time.” Yet an obviously digitally manipulated iconic photo of Burden’s mother becomes an annoying metaphor for Zaillian’s flawed masterpiece. It’s a statement about playing dirty that doesn’t play quite fair enough to be taken seriously.
The film is rated PG-13 “for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity.” There’s no question that this film is likely to be inappropriate for younger children of any sort, though parental discretion may naturally dictate otherwise. For adults, the violence and sexual content is milder than, say, an evening watching cable TV.This review originally appeared at Looking Closer.