If there could ever be an “accidentally great” movie, the new remake of “All the King’s Men” might be it. On the one hand, it’s a big political action drama that lacks action, lacks drama, and lacks a real sense of purpose. On the other hand, it accomplishes either a wonderful stumble or a sublime piece of greatness in mirroring our current political system and most of its participants: There’s a lot of activity and talk, but not much action or message.
In that way, “All the King’s Men” is an expensive and dressed-up version of a TV docu-drama: We were exposed to the characters but not much got solved.
It’s been a while since I had been so excited to go to the movies. As a culture blogger and political novice with an interest in spiritual reflection, I wanted to enjoy a big movie with big thoughts about big issues, such as power, money, empowerment, the rich, the poor, and the politics and history of leadership. And this was supposed to have it all: Big stars. Big trailer. Big run-up. Big anticipation. Big themes. Big message. And, in the end, Big Thud.
I’d nominate this for an Academy Award for Art Direction and, for maybe one-third of its score. It had all of the impact of, say, a televised Presidential debate: The characters feel extremely impressed with their own importance, but it’s just not making it through the screen. I was sad when it ended, partly because I was waiting for the impact moment and partly because I knew it wasn’t coming.
Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is inspired by Louisiana governor Huey Long, surrounded by an all-star cast of trite, typical characters even for today’s political landscape. Jude Law’s Jack Burden, Patricia Clarkson’s Sadie Burke, Kate Winslet’s Anne Stanton, Anthony Hopkins’ Judge Irwin, James Gandolfini’s Tiny Duffy, and Mark Ruffalo’s Adam run the range of principled to corrupt to leveraged to irrelevant. Stark navigates his way from idealist to electable to crusader to anti-hero. He gets elected as a voice for the everyday Joe but gets lost somewhere between lost idealism and found ambition. Sort of. It’s hard to tell how much of Stark’s hysterics are self-realized and how much are just, well, Sean Penn.
In the end, I’m not sure there’s enough of a message here, but on the other hand, I’m sure whatever your own message is, you could impose it on this film. And in that way, I guess it is spot on accurate in today’s political climate. Except, of course, there weren’t any spin doctors to explain it after it was over.
One of these days, the best of our actors and the finest of our scriptwriters will get the funding to bring us an intelligent political movie about the haves, the have-nots, and each of our roles in between. This, sadly, just isn’t it.