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All the King's Men

dir: Steve Zaillian
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Of all the flicks that came out last year, few garnered more scathing reviews and cat-calls than All the King’s Men. Not in Australia, necessarily, where pretty much no-one cared (though it still got bad reviews). In the States it was treated by reviewers and audiences alike as if it was a piece of shit covered in leprosy germs. Few films lost more money last year, and few were so hated. With that kind of rep, I was obliged to see it.

In the time-honoured tradition of spruiking for worthless crap, before the film even came out, and before it played on the film festival circuit and was screened for critics, the PR minions backing the film put out bullshit hype about how the flick would doubtless kill at the Oscars, with little golden dildos all around for all involved. Instead of generating positive buzz and interest, this had the effect of souring people on the whole experience before they even stepped into the theatre.

All the King’s Men is based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren, and is about the rise and fall of a Louisiana politician called Willie Stark as seen through the jaded eyes of journalist Jack Burden. In truth, the main character is based on a corrupt lunatic called Huey Long who dazzled the other crackers during the Great Depression and made it as high as the US Senate on the back of his populist class warfare rhetoric. this was, of course, before someone shot the fucker full of lead.

There was a flick made based on the book back in 1949, but this time around director Steve Zaillian, better known as a screenwriter for blockbusters like Schindler’s List, Gangs of New York and Hannibal (grrrr), elected to base it on parts of the book rather than remake the film, which he claims not to have seen. With an all star cast, with Sean Penn as Starks, and Jude Law, James Gandolfini, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo in key roles, how could this film fail?

Well fail it did, and in spectacular fashion, but more because of hubris rather than any catastrophic failure in the production.

The flick is nowhere near as bad as I had been teased to believe. I was expecting a dire circle jerk of a flick with all these rampant egos overacting to within an inch of their respective lives, but I didn’t get what I was hoping for. What that means, really, is that the flick isn’t half bad.

Sure, Penn overacts as Starks, but the character is a larger than life arsehole who seems to be equal parts man of the people and also the headlining MC at the Nuremburg Rallies. He is a brutish buffoon in front of the crowds, menacing and seductive in private, but, considering the guy he’s based on, isn’t that entirely in character?

As with most people who have an incredibly over-inflated sense of self, he attracts and cajoles people into his orbit who want to be swayed into coming over to his way of thinking anyway. They believe his rhetoric about looking after the poor and downtrodden for the first time in political history, despite the sheer abundance of evidence to the contrary, even when they’re seeing what a corrupt monster he is at the same time.

One of the people who is dragged into his sphere of influence against his will is a journalist, Jack Burden (Jude Law), who is actually the main character of both the book and the film. It’s not really about Starks: he’s too big and too monstrous a character for a straight biopic. It is not only through Jack’s eyes that we view his story, but through his particularly complex sense of history and morality.

Jack is from the absolute opposite end of town compared to Starks: he is a cynical blueblood who works the journalistic beat in lieu of finishing his PhD and becoming an academic. When he sees Starks’s initial attempts at electioneering, he sneers at the yokel’s amateurish strategies and poor performances on the hustings. He did, however, follow a story about a tragedy at a schoolhouse that somehow made Starks into a working class hero, so he knows there’s some kind of potential there for connecting to the electorate.

With a bit of advice from Jack, Starks turns his campaign around 180 degrees, running on a platform of sticking it to the bluebloods and against the mighty corporations who rule the great state of Louisiana with their grubby, iron fists. He campaigns, ironically enough from my point of view, on a platform of delivering the kinds of infrastructure projects people even back then in other North American states would have taken for granted (like roads, hospitals and schools).

But the wealthy, like Jack’s family friends, and the powerful view Starks’s rise to power with trepidation and unquiet horror, even as they plan to take him down. Jack’s patron and kindly father figure, who, in the absence of his own father, has played the role all his life, is keen to take Starks down after the election. This sets up the framing device at the movie’s beginning where Starks, his gun-toting henchman Sugar Boy and Jack call upon the saintly character played by Sir Anthony Hopkins.

The flick is really more about Jack, who is a bit dead inside, and becomes progressively deader (like that’s possible) as he sees and takes part in more and more soul-destroying actions. The corruptibility of people and the political process are almost secondary compared to what the story’s centre is really about: Jack Burden’s burden. He is burdened with a conscience that makes him at the very least feel bad about the things he does on Willie’s behalf, but most of all he cannot get beyond the feeling that his every action or inaction has terrible consequences.

And they do. It’s almost strange that the story is structured like a biopic told from the point of view of one of the great figure’s lackeys, when the real story is how the actions of the lackey have far reaching consequences for so many people. Even somewhat innocent actions (inaction, in this case), like not sleeping with a childhood sweetheart, or suggesting to a friend that they take a plum job as head of a hospital, have terrible consequences. Jack is uniquely placed to see this yet not prevent it, because despite his aristocratic background and cynical outlook, he is still a moral man with a conscience, unlike those around him.

Jack isn’t a particularly sympathetic main character, but at least we glean that he is not as irredeemably awful as Willie Starks. Willie may have started off caring about the duped masses, but we see the Mussolini-like explosion of ego that transforms Willie into a tyrant more interested in destroying his enemies than helping the plebs who put him in power. As over the top as Penn’s characterisation is, Jude Law manages to dial it down and make his character more believable. Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, and Patricia Clarkson give decent supporting performances, though it would have been helpful if more time had been spent on Ruffalo’s character, considering the importance he plays at flick’s end.

It looked nice, there weren’t too many glaringly obvious fuckups in how the story was told, at least from my point of view, and I did enjoy the flick, as much as I disliked Penn’s portrayal. It’s not a flick for everyone, but, for the kinds of people who like it when movies confirm just how awful humanity is, this flick is a veritable goldmine.

The message I draw from this is the message I have, for the longest time, been told loudly and quietly by the sum of human history and the essence of every political artwork ever put together: be wary of all who seek power, because they’re not doing it for the benefit of the people they’re going to have power over.

6 times power corrupts, and therefore Absolut power corrupts drunkenly out of 10

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“The world is full of sluts on skates.” – if only, All the King’s Men.

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