The new film treatment of “All the Kings’ Men,” which opens Sept. 22, is the third telling of a story that most would say concerns Willy Stark, a corrupt Southern politician who gets his comeuppance.
That summary, however, is inadequate. It’s true that Stark — a fleshy, grits-fed city official who ends up as governor — makes the best front guy for the plot. He speaks the best lines, sleeps with the best girls and suffers a show-stopper of a violent end.
But the flashiness of the role notwithstanding, Stark’s function in the complex system of bodies and themes that swirl about Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel ultimately is that of the sun: a gravitational anchor for objects that do all the moving, illuminating them in brilliance and radiating heat to catalyze their change.
Closest in orbit to Stark is Jack Burden, the sullen narrator whose evolution makes him the true star of the book. But Burden’s introspective wordiness makes him much better to read than to watch. If you’re going to film the book, then, and unless you’re making low-budget art, going with Stark — ranting and soaking his shirts with sweat and filling the air with searing sound-bites of cornpone political wisdom — is the smart and easy choice.
A more complex choice involves which among the story’s many themes to nurture at the expense of others. The 1949 film adaptation, for which Penn Warren received co-credit, focused on the flaws that accrued to Stark once he was in power. A poster for that film summarizes it thusly, with the era’s quaint cheesiness: “He Might Have Been A Pretty Good Guy … If Too Much Power … And Women … Hadn’t Gone To his Head!” The movie was a box office success, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning three.
The version on its way to theaters this week lacks that clarity. It’s akin to a stump speech that a politician less savvy than Willie Stark might carry around in his coat pocket, trying for broadness to tickle as many ears as possible but not going so deep that anything like a promise or plan emerges.
Some elements seem sacrificed perforce of time: Jack’s complex relationship with his mother and her many husbands is omitted. The identity of Jack’s father is addressed, but the significance of the revelation is missing. Also absent is Jack’s transformation from someone who refuses to believe in personal accountability into a man who sees the role that individual decisions can play on history. One gets the feeling that adapter and director Steven Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay for “Schindler’s List ” tried to put in enough to tell a meaningful story and please fans of the book, but just got in over his head.
Of no help to him, I would wager, were the influences of political consultant James Carville, who gets a producing credit and whose instigation set the picture in motion, and Sean Penn, who plays Stark. A good question to ask about this release of “All the King’s Men” is why now? The influence of Carville and Penn help answer it: The story of Stark and his imperialistic grip on the state is a metaphor for the Bush administration.
Carville had talked the book up extensively to get the film going, saying its story is relevant to today. Once it was in the works, Zaillian has said, Carville spent a great deal of time advising him on the set.
“Clearly Willie is on a power grab. And we’re having a big discussion in the United States today about the limits of executive power,” Carville said in a panel discussion about the film. “Since we started this movie, how much more relevant this story is today than it was back in ’03.”
Penn, interviewed last week by Larry King, discussed the ideology behind his performance. The actor, who recently referred to Bush as “Beelzebub,” said the administration may well bring fascism to America and cited Bush for having “devastated our democracy.”
One imagines poor Zaillian: James Carville in one ear, Sean Penn in the other, and a Byzantine, sacred novel in his lap, figuring out how to make a good movie of it all.
A for effort
Zaillian never struck on the right formula to do that. Perhaps when the suits at Sony Pictures saw him wrap in April 2005, they were confident he had, and they planned a December release, in time for Oscar season. Instead, after poorly received test screenings and considerable angst, the movie was pulled from the holiday schedule, with Zaillian saying he could improve the cut with extra time. So here we are, the following September, a month not known for launching Academy Award-worthy films, wondering just how much worse the original project could have been 14 months ago.
When I first heard that James Gandolfini was involved in the project, I rejoiced: What actor alive today was better suited to play Willie Stark? Meaty, imperious, capable of alternating palpable rage with finesse. Penn, I assumed, would play Burden. Instead, Gandolfini ended up as Tiny Duffy, a political good ol’ boy who has little to do onscreen but move the story. Maybe the casting was for the better; Gandolfini at times looks and sounds like he has just come from “The Sopranos” set and forgotten to leave his dialogue coach at the office; sometimes he speaks Southern, but more often, the accent is New Jersey or an odd soup of the two.
Penn works hard, but perhaps insecure about whether he possesses the stature or charisma to pull off a character modeled on the flamboyant and charged Huey Long, he goes too far. His speech is thick and often unintelligible, and his wavers and gestures come off more like Captain Jack Sparrow than a politician who could pirate the will of voters and the cooperation of a strongly self-interested legislature.
Even more damaging to the cause is the script’s perfunctory connecting of points of the plot. Zaillian puts lines between the dots surely enough, but when he’s finished, it’s not so much a picture revealed but scattered lines that may (or may not) connect at some common point. Revelations are made without thought for their relevance. Things happen, get a line of dialogue or narration from Jude Law (somnambulant as Jack Burden) and are promptly forgotten.
The novel’s title, of course, appears in the child’s nursery rhyme “Humpty Dumpty,” about the presumed egg that falls from a wall, leaving pieces that not even “all the king’s men” could put back together. Zaillian unwittingly implicates himself in the title of his own film.
The writer blogs about the relationship between human nature and our animal origins at SexAndTheHumanAnimal.blogspot.com. He can be reached at [email protected]