The plot of “All the King’s Men” can be simplified to: Willie Stark heard a great call / Willie Stark had a great fall / And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men / Could not bring Stark back to life again.
Set in the 1950s, “All the King’s Men” is a fictionalized account of former Louisiana governor Huey Long’s rise to power from the swamps to the state capitol. Huey Long built bridges, established schools and founded libraries. However, after tasting power he became guilty of practicing greed and coercion – the same vices that corrupted his predecessors. In the movie, Jack Burden (Jude Law) is an upper-class journalist who follows Willie Stark’s (Sean Penn) political campaign to give the poor man his due. Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) is Stark’s top adversary and unfortunately for everyone involved, Burden’s father figure. In a small and miscast role, Kate Winslet plays Anne Stanton, Burden’s childhood friend whose close relationship with Stark creates even more conflicts for all of the characters.
This is the third time the story of Huey Long has been put on film, and it is obviously a story worth telling and telling well. However, director Steven Zaillian fails to produce an adequate portrayal of the political leader. Though difficult to pinpoint, there is something off the mark in “All the King’s Men.” From little details like Winslet’s unattractive dye job to bigger ones like Law’s tiresome and redundant narration, the film is full of problems big and small alike.
The film is both slow-paced and inadequate in developing character relationships. Mainly, it cannot coherently express the seemingly complex plot line. In one mind-boggling scene Jack Burden asks Stark, who is reposing after a night entertaining a Swedish ice skater, why he should work for a man like him. Stark answers with a sneer, “‘Cause I’m the way I am, and you the way you are.” Unfortunately, “All the King’s Men” does not manage to transcend the convoluted logic of its characters, a big problem that makes this movie one film that does not live up to the hype.