Magazine article The Christian Century

Rise and Fall

Magazine article The Christian Century

Rise and Fall

Article excerpt

STEVE ZAILLIAN'S adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men, about the making of a demagogue--modeled on Louisiana governor (and later senator) Huey Long--is languid, undramatic and shapeless. Zaillian has a talent for streamlining big, incident-filled books. He wrote the screenplay for Schindler's List and both wrote and directed A Civil Action. But in this case his love for the novel seems to have done him in.

Warren's book is lyrical and impressionistic, and despite its size (nearly 600 pages) it relies on the reader's imagination to fill in the arc of Willie Stark's rise to power. Stark begins as a decent politician who captures the poor and working class by voicing their outrage. He then becomes a master manipulator, practically a mobster, who barely escapes impeachment. In Zaillian's movie, Stark (Scan Penn) is first one and then the other.

Stark's political education is dramatized clearly enough. His first gubernatorial campaign turns out to be a ploy, engineered by the good-old-boy incumbent to split the opposition vote. Willie is too naive to see that he was never intended to win. When he finds out the truth, you can see his face practically break apart with the force of the revelation. (This is Penn's best scene.)

From that point his stump speeches take on a tone of ironic self-deprecation: he knows that everyone expects him to be dumb, and he realizes that he has been dumb--dumb enough to let himself get stepped over. His new rhetoric excites his constituency. He loses the election, but in the next go-round he mounts his own campaign and wins by a landslide. So we see how Willie loses his innocence. What Zaillian fails to show us is how he loses his principles.

Penn is effective in the quiet, contemplative scenes, but in the big set pieces in which Willie is shown captivating voters, he's studied rather than convincing. (It doesn't help him that Willie's grandstanding calls for the kind of large-scale staging that Zaillian doesn't know how to pull off.) The truth is Penn is wrongly cast. He can certainly be a powerhouse on screen and can portray a charismatic leader (Casualties of War), but he may be too complex an actor to play an iconic public figure. His presence is too dark, too troubled.

The casting emphasizes exactly the part of Stark's character that is the least plausible: Stark as the cynical philosopher who knows everyone has a dark, buried secret and who sets reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) to the task of digging up dirt on Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins), Jack's godfather and Willie's most respected and outspoken detractor. …

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