Thursday, March 08, 2007

ALL THE KING'S MEN - really not so bad as all that....

....but not so fantastic either. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN attracted a lot of critical brick-bats when it was released last autumn and made no money at the box office either. So I was expecting a tedious over-blown movie. But, you know, it's not as bad as all that.

The movie is an adaptation of the famous political novel by Robert Penn Warren, which was in turn loosely based on the life of the Louisana Governor, US Senator and one-time potential presidential candidate, Huey Long. Long was a populist demagogue, who got elected on the 'hick vote' and proceeded to threaten the vested interests with a programme of wealth redistribution and massive infrastructure investment.

In the movie, the Governor is called Willie Stark, and is played by
Sean Penn as a fire-brand orator of superb skill. He begins as a man of fierce integrity, who won't touch alcohol and stands on street corners warning the electorate of the corruption of their local officials. When he discovers that he's been put up as a Gubernatorial candidate to split the Hick vote - that he's a patsy - he starts campaigning for real and wins a landslide election to become Governor. Many critics have taken Penn to task for his exaggerated Southern accent and wild polemical style. But if you look at the most successful orators in history some have had exactly this kind of over-the-top style. This is precisely what translates to the gathered hordes at the back of the stadia. Frankly, I found his performance mesmerising.

Sadly, he is let down by poor casting of the other roles and a poor script. Penn's Governor Stark is propelled to power thanks partly to the help of a journalist played by Jude Law. This character should be one of the most intriguing in the movie. He is the son of a wealthy establishment family - precisely the kind that Stark's policies are aimed against. Indeed, when Stark needs to side-step an impeachment trial, he asks the journalist to investigate his own godfather - a man with whom he is incredibly close. The moral decision that the journalist makes: whether or not to dig dirt on his own surrogate father to further the career of a politician that he knows has become corrupt - should form the emotional and moral heart of the film. Instead, the viewer is constantly distracted by Jude Law's inability to consistently hold down any variant of a Southern accent. The same is also true (but with less serious damage inflicted because they have smaller parts) of
Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins as the girlfriend and the godfather respectively.

The other big flaw is in the development of Sean Penn's character. Instead of sliding into the mire of corruption and compromise, he seems to go to sleep one night as candidate with integrity and wake up as a corrupt Governor. There is no middle ground. This makes the movie infinitely less interesting and once again focuses attention onto Jude Law's character as the centre of the moral drama - leading to the aforementioned frustrations.

Still, for all it's faults, I was never bored watching this lengthy political thriller and despite its manifest flaws, I enjoyed Sean Penn's performance and the handsome production (
Pawel Edelman (DP) and Patrizia von Brandenstein). I even enjoyed James Horner's orchestral score, although I have heard it described as clumsy and over-worked.

ALL THE KING'S MEN was released last autumn and is now available on DVD.

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