“Listen to me, you hicks! Lift up your eyes and look at God’s blessed and unfly-blown truth. This is the truth! You’re a hick. Nobody ever helped a hick but a hick himself.”
2006, a time when America was balls deep into the reign of a president in the pockets of oil companies and any other corporation who might be able to make a few bucks out of war in the Middle East. I’m sure for the movie studio, making a movie about political corruption, based on a famous novel that had already been turned into a classic movie, seemed like a sure thing. Add to that an all star cast, and I’m sure it surprised more than a few people when it ended being a $42million loss. Well, it turns out, All the King’s Men is better than the box office receipts would have you believe.
Sean Penn is Willie Stark, an altruistic everyman who only wants the best for his state of Louisiana. When the current administration, represented by Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) notice he’s gaining grass roots support, they decide to embrace his popularity and make him one of their own. One step ahead, Willie double crosses Duffy and sweeps the next election, becoming the most popular Governor in the state’s history… For the time being.
As Willie’s election promises start to catch up with him, he realises that finding the money to build all of those highways, schools and hospitals might mean some under the table dealing. Soon clinging on to power and notoriety takes precedence over infrastructure, and the dirty dealings only grow to satiate it. Working along side Willie is Jack Burden (Jude Law), who struggles with lifelong loyalties to his surrogate father (Anthony Hopkins), whose influence is standing in the way of Willie’s absolute domination of the state.
This updated All the King’s Men is 128 minutes. The 1949 version is only 110 minutes. Yet somehow, the shorter version tells a much more complete story. In the original, we get to meet Willie Stark as the honorable man of the people, seemingly incorruptible. We see the failure that motivates him to win at all costs. And when the corruption does come, it’s that much more heartbreaking. In 2006, we see none of Willie’s struggles, and as quick as he’s elected, he’s ruthlessly on the take. There’s also a barely used Mark Ruffalo and Kate Winslett, also there to test Jack’s character through loyalty.
It’s the devotion to the Jack Burden character in this new version of All the King’s the Men that gets most of the attention, taking up most of the time, leaving less to flesh out Willie. In the original, Jack was there purely as a function of telling Willie’s story. In 2006, Willie was there as a function to get deeper into the character of Jack, his life and what lead him to be the man who he became. I can kind of understand that, since Jack is a more emotionally rich character with more places to go than Willie.
The problem is, the character of Willie is supposed to be this unstoppable force of will and charisma, so if he’s played anywhere near effectively by any actor, he’s going to overshadow those around him and demand more attention. So when the character of Willie Stark is played by someone as great as Sean Penn, it’s a tough ask of the audience to be more invested in Jack’s melodrama than they are in Willie’s immensely entertaining grand standing, pontificating and speechifying.
One thing this version gets totally right is its Louisiana setting. In the original, the state Willie runs is left deliberately ambiguous, and it that version, that works. But here, the hot, humid, swampy backdrop of Louisiana fits the sleazy machinations of the characters perfectly. Willie preaching progress from the banks of a swamp to hicks in their wooden dinghies, Anthony Hopkin’s southern gentleman (albeit with an English accent ) in his white suite and plantation like manor. Jack perpetually sipping bourbon in his seersucker suits. The 2006 incarnation of All the King’s Men is one of those movies where its geographical location is as important a character as any of the humans.
Seeing All the King’s Men through 2015 eyes is seeing an above average movie. But I think, for me, it suffered from having seen the original as well. The 1949 All the King’s Men provides such a successful map for how to make this movie work on screen, the wrong turns taken by the remake only stand out more.