We know it first from the life that inspired it, that of Louisiana politician and populist tornado Huey Long, once called "the most entertaining tyrant in American history." We know it from Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that took Long's truncated lifespan (he was assassinated in 1935 at age 42) as its starting point. And we know it from the 1949 film, one of only two ("Gone With the Wind" was the other) to win a best picture Oscar to go along with the Pulitzer.
That's because Zaillian (an Oscar winner for his "Schindler's List" screenplay) has given us an intricate, subtly rewarding narrative whose uncompromising nature and undeniable moral seriousness make it far from business as usual, even in the ever-decreasing world of quality Hollywood filmmaking.
More daring still, this film makes few concessions to the audience in terms of conventional emotional satisfaction. Unlike the 1949 Robert Rossen version (which was nominated for seven Oscars and, in addition to best picture, took deserved acting honors for Broderick Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge), Zaillian's version is not concerned with offering sentimental handholds to make things easier for viewers to take. There is an austerity to his conception, but that ensures that the fate of the characters has a weight and a substance that stay with you well after the film ends.
Although the 1949 film did not hesitate to do whatever it took to make Warren's book fit into the Procrustean bed of Hollywoodized melodrama, this "All the King's Men" was determined to stick as close as possible to the original source, a book whose plotting and characterization are nothing like the stuff that comes from standard screenwriting classes.
For one thing, this is a big novel in every sense, and its massiveness is its strength, giving it a richness and subtlety only a nearly 700-page work with dozens of major characters could provide. For another, this is a narrative written by a poet good enough to have won two other Pulitzers for his verse. The book is rich, discursive, meandering and finely honed.
Finally, this is a novel connected to history, to the story of Huey Pierce Long, one of the most provocative figures in American political history, someone whose rule Warren observed firsthand when he took a teaching job at Louisiana State University in 1934.
Long was first a governor and then senator from Louisiana from 1928 until his assassination, and he was the founder of a Napoleonic dynasty whose power lasted for decades. Long, who had designs on the presidency, was considered "one of the two most dangerous men in the country" (the other being Gen. Douglas MacArthur) by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Long did an enormous amount of good for the poor people of his state, providing roads, bridges, free textbooks, hospitals and a university, but, wrote T. Harry Williams in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "in striving to do good, he was led on to grasp for more and more power, until finally he could not always distinguish between the method and the goal, the power and the good." After he was shot, Long's last coherent words were "God, don't let me die. I have so much to do."
While "All the King's Men's" Willie Stark is doubtlessly modeled after Long, the novel takes pains to place the man in a complex fictitious personal drama that underscores the capacity to corrupt and be corrupted that is in all of us. That is what Zaillian does as well.
True to the essence of its source and the poetry of its language, Zaillian's script has expertly extracted the core of this greatest of American political novels, a work that is both of its time and outside it. It uses great chunks of Warren's classic dialogue and hones the characters and the situations in a way that has inspired the actors to do exceptional ensemble work.
But while both the novel and the 1949 film took pains to disguise the state Stark ruled, Zaillian and cinematographer Pawel Edelman place Louisiana front and center in the film. Exteriors were shot all over the state, and both the massive Capitol in Baton Rouge that Long built and the great seal in its lobby floor figure prominently in the narrative. Zaillian even cements the connection by adding a scene of Stark singing Long's theme song, the always provocative "Every Man a King."
The writer-director has condensed the span of the story from more than a dozen years to five and, working with production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein and her team, has also quietly and expertly updated the story from the 1930s to the late 1940s and early '50s. It is a '50s that, except for car models and women's fashions, looks very much the way the '30s did, telling us without words that this is a part of the country where things are not in the habit of changing very fast.
Looking similarly lost in time is Jack Burden (Jude Law), introduced lying on his back and brooding. It's a not infrequent position, for Jack has the sleepy, complicit eyes of a former journalist cynically content to watch life from the sidelines, confident in his belief that "nothing's ever going to change." His boss, Willie Stark, has exactly the opposite philosophy, which is why they are attracted to each other.
When we meet Stark (Penn), it is 1954 and he and Burden, his top aide, are in a speeding car in the middle of the night headed to a crucial political meeting with the influential Judge Montague Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) that the well-brought-up Burden feels would be more seemly in daylight. But, says Stark with typical bravado and drive, "ain't nothing a man can do and keep his dignity. The human frame just ain't built that way."
The film then goes into an extended flashback that starts five years earlier, when Burden was a New Orleans reporter and Stark a small-town parish treasurer in the big city to meet sleazy political operative Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini), perhaps the most malevolent movie fat man since Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan in "Touch of Evil."
The story of "All the King's Men" revolves around Stark's rise from that unimpressive beginning to the governor's mansion. It's a story that involves the machinations of both Duffy and his hardscrabble associate Sadie Burke (Patricia Clarkson, putting her native Louisiana accent to excellent use), and it involves a transformation on Stark's part that demands an actor capable of playing both the before and the after. An actor like Sean Penn.
For Penn turns out to be adept at calling forth all the aspects of Stark, including the earnest "Jesus come down off the cross" sincerity he begins with. Penn can play the intelligence hidden below the surface, the quiet moments before the storm. And, no surprise here, few if any American actors are better at playing the storm itself, the moment when Stark realizes Duffy and company have been deceiving him and lashes out in the speech of a lifetime. "You hicks, they fooled you too; it's time I fooled somebody," he screams from a makeshift platform. "I'm coming for them, and I'm coming for blood."
Jack Burden is attracted to Stark in part because of the man's determination to do the most good for the many and in part because his own background is at the other end of the social scale. The well-connected Judge Irwin he and Stark are driving to see in the middle of the night turns out to be Burden's godfather, and he is intensely aware of the gap between his two worlds. "Graft," Burden tells his mother in a line that comes from the book, "is what you call it when who's doing it doesn't know what fork to use."
Irwin is not the only person from Burden's past who figures in his present with Stark. His closest childhood friends, brother and sister Adam (Mark Ruffalo) and Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), reenter his life and touch off haunted memories of relationships that did not go as planned. They also ignite present-day crises that are at least as painful and possibly more dangerous. For it's inevitable that the old order and the new in politics will face off, and that Burden will be caught in the crossfire.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about "All the King's Men" is how contemporary so many of its issues seem. Not only the classic question of means and ends, the validity of Stark's insistence that "good can always be made from bad," but also the question of who if anyone in American life speaks for the poor and dispossessed, a question that was last raised, ironically, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.When Penn's Stark cries out to his constituency, "Your will is my strength, your need is my justice," he is striking a chord that may yet be heard again.
'All the King's Men'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity.