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All the King's Men's cynical message
We're all just dupes

Review by Elizabeth Schulte | October 13, 2006 | Page 9

All The King's Men, written and directed by Steven Zaillian, starring Sean Penn and Jude Law.

MANY READERS have likely seen the trailer for All the King's Men, with Sean Penn railing against the powers that be, pledging to fight for the little guy to crowds screaming "Nail them up!"

You may have asked, what's up with this? And when you read the reviews about good actors miscast with terrible Southern accents, you decided to stay at home.

This was a good move. While All the King's Men might not be as horrible as its reviews, it's definitely not a film that roots for the little guy.

All the King's Men is based on the 1946 book by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren about Willie Stark, an honest, small-town politician who becomes a corrupt governor, who nonetheless builds hospitals and paves roads.

We watch as Stark transforms--inexplicably turns on a dime, to be accurate--from do-gooder local politician to firebrand populist to a corrupt and menacing power figure.

Stark is played by Penn, who unfortunately doesn't measure up to Broderick Crawford's more believable portrayal in the 1949 version of the film. The earlier film won two Oscars that year, one for best picture.

Like the book, the recent version centers on journalist-turned-political hit man for Stark, Jack Burden, played by Jude Law. The job of Burden--whose family is part of the wealthy elite who fill senator's seats and judges' chambers who seem to be above the fray but are steeped in their own corruption--is to dig up dirt on Stark's opponents.

As Stark says, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

Though the book and the original movie never put a real-life name or a place to it, the story is loosely based on the rise and fall of Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana in the Depression-era 1930s.

In the 2006 version of the story, it's made clear it's set in Louisiana in the very first frame. But director/screenwriter Steven Zaillian has decided to move the story out of the Depression and into the 1950s--therefore removing from the story the grinding poverty that made the success of Long's populist campaign possible.

Long, a Democrat, rose to the office of governor of Louisiana in 1928, on the promise to improve Louisiana's failing education system and to go after the wealthy, particularly the utilities industry. Long angered the political establishment by replacing them with his own supporters and by imposing a new tax on the oil industry.

In the 1930s, Long capitalized on sentiment about fighting for the poor and working man, but more in the tradition, he asserted, of the Holy Bible than Karl Marx, posing his own alternative to socialists and communists of the day. While he launched several initiatives to build highways and improve other state services, Long also used his position to enrich himself and his supporters.

Long became a senator in 1932. He launched the Share our Wealth Society, and initiated local clubs that called for the redistribution of wealth. In 1934, he angered Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who he had helped win the party nomination, when he announced he would run against him as an independent.

In response, FDR promised tax policies that would go after corporations, with Long responding that he'd stolen his program.

But while the movie makes a point of situating it in Louisiana and even showing Penn recording Long's campaign song "Every Man a King," the moviemakers aren't interested in pursuing this story. This is particularly clear on the question of racism and the Dixiecrat Southern Democratic Party--as the filmmaker's camera pans on the crowd of Stark followers, focusing in on the African Americans that he thinks should be there (but likely weren't).

The story in All the King's Men has been compared to recent scandals like the ones that got Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay.

And James Carville, Bill Clinton's political strategist who co-produced the film, says, "One of the points of the movie is you become obsessed with the power that you have. Lieberman was a crusading attorney general; now he's in D.C. and challenged by someone else who wants the power."

Zaillian says politicians can take a lead from Stark: "If someone just got up and said what they thought, they'd get themselves elected, but you just don't see it anymore. I wonder if Al Gore would try that today if he wouldn't just get elected."

This movie is, put simply, a cynical look at American politics--and how it ultimately corrupts.

On the face of it, that seems like a safe point to make. But because the politician in the movie uses populist rhetoric and rallies the crowd so effectively, the message is much more cynical and wrongheaded--that ordinary people are easily duped by someone who can talk a good game.

We're supposed to see the worst of the "mob mentality" as the crowd gathers to hear Stark, as the menacing music swells and his shadow grows in the torchlight. Evidently, the people will believe anything and let anyone come to power.

This may fit nicely with what Carville and other Democratic Party pundits think about us, but it's wrong.

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