& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & P & lt;/span & artisans think in black and white terms: My side's lily white, yours is pure evil, and anyone who chooses the wrong side is just plain dumb. But Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, which sees past partisanship, isn't a great political novel just because it refuses to over-simplify American politicking. It's a layered story of an idealist turned cynical (a politician) told from the perspective of a cynic who shows flashes of idealism (a newspaper reporter).
Warren's Huey Long hero, Willie Stark, travels from dumb hick to smart politician, from powerless idealist to idealist empowered. When he discovers that a political machine has used him, he lashes out with honesty -- and with the passion instilled in him by years of slopping pigs and having no hope of ever doing anything else. But his political rise (to governor of Louisiana) corrupts him: He ends up as a megalomaniac who rationalizes the way he uses other people, becoming just like the cynics who first used him.
This is Sean Penn and Jude Law's movie. As Willie, Penn glares in indignation over injustice; when surprised by bad news, his eyes search out the wall before redirecting his steely gaze; when speechifying to farmers, his hands flutter aloft together because he's dreaming big dreams. When he preaches to the unimpeachable judge (Anthony Hopkins) that dirt runs through all of politics, that dirt is all around us, that "it's what makes everything green," Penn's expression masterfully blends opposed emotions: remorse over humanity's situation, joy over our cleverness.
The other luminaries in this cast, and there are several, have what amount to small supporting roles. The idealistic fervor of Jack Burden childhood friends (Kate Winslet and Mark Ruffalo's characters aim to change the world too) is only sketched in. Even Hopkins doesn't make much of an impression, even in a climactic scene that calls for him to look bedraggled, wipe his over-long white locks out of his face, and look devastated by betrayal.
Law's Jack Burden, meanwhile, has the blank affect of the low-key cynic who ain't no way gonna let corruption or the love of a good woman change his poker face. It's an understated performance, just right for his character's detachment from life.
Unfortunately, James Horner's over-wrought score surges into low-angle shots of Penn's orations, bulldozing those scenes with sentimentality, and Zaillian's montages of Willie's speechifying try too hard to be inspirational.
No screenplay could match the novel's metaphor-heavy, hard-boiled prose, though Zaillian's script knows how to tell a story using visual shorthand. Yet he sticks too close to the novel during sequences when Jack Burden digs up the dirt on people by poring over public records. There's no way to make long hours of tedious work cinematic -- or if there is, Zaillian hasn't found it here.
Since being pulled out of Oscar consideration last year, All the King's Men feels as if it's been tinkered with too much: Some of the subplot scenes seem disconnected and unresolved. Despite its weaknesses, however, it's better than the 1949 version, if only because it delves deeper into our national cynicism about politicians.
The critics have dog-piled on this political movie with a big-name cast, faulting Penn for histrionics, the screenplay for over-reaching and the supporting cast for bad Southern accents. But Warren's Willie is the wild demagogue that Penn portrays. And you can't simultaneously criticize a picture for saying too much (aiming at profound political analysis) and too little (Willie's motives aren't explained clearly). And don't you just love people who have never set foot in the South, who have no training in phonetics or linguistics, passing judgment on the suitability of actors' drawls?
All the King's Men isn't as false as that.