All The King’s Men
Director: Steven Zaillian
Stars: Sean Penn, Kate Winslet
** (out of five)
Robert Penn Warren wrote All The King’s Men in 1946, telling the fictional story of Willie Stark, a Louisiana nobody who becomes a populist governor on the backs of the underclass, gaining great power only to lose his soul to corruption and influence.
The story is still entirely relevant — even more so, now that Warren’s beloved New Orleans has been lost in circumstances Warren’s Willie Stark would surely recognize — so mounting an expensive new production with a powerhouse cast must have seemed like a can’t-miss idea to Steven Zaillian, screenwriter of the similarly moral Schindler’s List and director of such high-minded entertainments as Searching For Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action.
Zaillian’s run at All The King’s Men does have the book’s political savvy. And it does have a powerhouse cast — Sean Penn, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini and Patricia Clarkson.
Penn’s performance as raging maverick Stark can’t be faulted; his feverish bluster is precisely what the character needs, and in his quieter scenes opposite Jude Law’s Jack Burden, the privileged reporter who becomes his close confidant and majordomo over the course of Stark’s political career, he finds the right balance of humility and self-confidence.
But the film is weighted with self-importance — all burnished bronze and silver cinematography, a rumbling score signaling portent around every turn. — that it feels like a coffee-table book of itself.
Try Robert Rossen’s 1949 screen version instead.
Don't miss Norman Wilner's reviews of Confetti and Fearless: