Huey Long, the Kingfish of Louisiana, is oft cited with admiration by Southern liberals as that Wascawy Wibewuw who Got Things Done…something like the hard left today admires Hugo Chavez. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, no right-wing schill, might have referred to him more as a Hitler with a Heart of Gold. The history of the American left is filled with admiration for the next strongman who talks a progressive line and disillusionment that each strongman turns out to be yet another dictator or wannabe dictator. The old admiration lingers, though, because there’s always something to point to, like Cuba’s literacy rate, Stalin’s modernization, or Long’s roads and bridges. So there’s a tendency to tell stories that elide the nastier parts and focus on the Good Works.
Enter Willie Stark, Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning version of Long in All the King’s Men that falls short of a hagiography in his thesis that everybody is corrupt at heart. An even less charitable take won an Oscar for the 1949 film of the same name. Unlike Long, Stark is not a lawyer with a penchant for taking a piece of corporate wrongdoing settlements and slowly building his popularity, but a self-described “hick” vaulted to office after fighting and losing a crony bid to build a school, whose fire escape collapses and kills three white children. He immediately becomes governor, but lets his zeal for doing the right thing by any means necessary and his sexual appetites prove his undoing–somehow missing Long’s siphoning of state funds, employee salaries, contracts awarded to cronies in exchange for ad space in his own paper, and false front businesses to profit directly from his regulation of industry. Apparently, Steven Zaillian thought that wasn’t kind enough and decided to do his own take.
My friend Mindy had passes to see the new version, so I went last night. Continue on if you want my take on Zaillian’s take. Spoilers abound.
All the King’s Men (2006) extends Hollywood’s crisis of confidence, by remaking already great movies for their Important Films instead of doing something original (and, hence, controversial). Perhaps that crisis is justified, as the screenwriter for Schindler’s List proves unequal to the task of direction. An NY Times piece (I won’t link to stuff that will disappear behind a paywall) claims that, if Zaillian has a flaw, it’s attention to detail. He presented an initial cut of the film to audiences who were uniformly befuddled at even the basic elements of the story. So he went back into the editing room for a year to produce a trimmed-down, simplified version.
Well, the story is somewhat understandable, though the movie lurches back and forth from past to present with little warning or explanation and still taxes your memory. At two hours, the movie feels longer, and I kept just waiting for it to end, which it does at least three times before the credits roll. Additionally, Zaillian’s attention to detail is belied by the minimum of three shots with prominent boom microphones bobbing above an actor. And I don’t normally notice these things. While Zaillian’s attention to period typography may be great, the great honking modern diesel locomotive that roars through an opening shot is a glaring anachronism.
The film also somehow manages to be devoid of place. How can you make a film set in bayous, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans and have your piece feel like it’s set in Generic Southern Setting, USA? Filmed in wanovision, the colors are muted, as if this will help Sean Penn’s Stark stand out as more colorful by contrast.
In fact, the film seems remarkably ignorant of the South for a piece on Southern politics. A sister of a disgraced bank baron in Savannah, Georgia, is pictured as a classic elderly Catholic woman. Um, not bloody likely. Perhaps this was in the book; I haven’t read it. But it feels more like Zaillian simply assumes that Southerners are religious, Louisiana is chock full of Catholics (Stark is employed as a Parish treasurer before his political rehabilitation), so therefore any dowager must be Catholic. And he would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those darn
This lack of place extends to the casting and performances of the actors. Forget Louisiana or Cajun accents, this cast can barely do generic Southern accent, and none affect Southern mannerisms. James Gandolfini never manages to get out of his Jersey Mobster persona, simply tacking on a few diphthongs to his vowels near the end of each line. Penn also seems to want to do a DeNiro impression and has to fight it to turn it into a Southerner. Jude Law keeps lapsing into a British accent, Anthony Hopkins can never drop his, and everybody else slips in and out of generic Southerner, except for the realistic-sounding Patricia Clarkson (Sadie Burke) and Jackie Earle Haley (“Sugar Boy”,
Long’s Stark’s bodyguard), who gets three lines, one of which is repeated in a flashback to the opening scene.
Penn’s acting is fairly good, though his attempt to imitate Long’s speechmaking style comes off as obviously affected, like Dana Carvey’s impression of Bush the Elder’s random hand signals. Jude Law is there to mope and look conflicted, and does so passably well. The bizarre hair coloring of Kate Winslet’s Anne Stanton kept distracting me…I guess they had dye jobs back then, but I’m unaware of Southern Belles leaving the eyebrows so distinctly untouched.
I’m now tempted to read the book, because despite the reviews that claim it has overly purple prose in a bad attempt to be Faulkner II, the story is alleged to make sense. Zillian’s overall theme of a man brought down through his hubris and sexual appetites by his enemies’ manipulations (the Clinton impeachment failed, too, we get it–though Clinton wasn’t corrupt on Long’s or even Stark’s scale, so I’m not sure I’d want anybody drawing that comparison if I were Clinton) is plain enough, but the rest of the story is muddled. Apparently Jude Law’s character can’t get it up for Winslet’s, which makes her sleep with Stark to get revenge. Or something. It was poorly handled, and except for a love interest, I’m not sure what that subplot really brought to it, other than to give Law’s character something else to mope about and a fuzzily-deliniated personal connection to Stark’s eventual assasin, Winslet’s character’s brother.
But the chief failing of the film is its ham-fistedness. When Stark begins to speak on his own, the music swells to let us know He’s Doing Something Great. In fact, the music swells just about any time Penn steps into a room, because, get it, he’s the Good Guy Who Cares About the Poor. And in the assassination scene, we spend a full minute just looking at a slow motion crane pull-up (the kind that people imagine happens to Shatner in his “Khaaaaaaaan!” scene, but in reality doesn’t) centering on a motionless crowd and mirror-image poses of Stark and his assasin, perfectly centered on the state seal, and whose blood flows down the etchings of Louisiana’s rivers on that seal, eventually to commingle, because You See, We’re All Victims of the Bad Men and Just Alike Underneath. Or something.
Whatever it is, it ain’t Kosher or Halal, but terribly Southern with all that ham. Pity that and the corruption are the only really Southern elements to the movie. Zaillian has a message. It’s unclear what it is, but he’s going to hammer you flat with sentimentalism about it.
Having good motives is great, but in the era of George Bush’s jihad to protect America, celebrating somebody for ignoring the rules to get what they want is probably not a timely or healthy message. And man, whatever Zaillian’s message is, are you going to be hammered with it if you see this movie.