An idealistic, charismatic and compassionate politician comes out of nowhere to be elected Governor of a somewhat bedraggled Southern state. He may be an affront to the local establishment, but he has a real feel for populist discontent and the ability to turn that inchoate unhappiness into a potent political force. He's also an irresistible subject for the media, ever avid for gaudy and enigmatic political figures capable of adding a touch of color to a scene that is generally painted in the gray tones of compromise. The fellow has his weaknesses, especially for fast women. And there is that little problem of impeachment to be surmounted.
Ah, good, the wise-guy observer thinks--The Bill Clinton Story at last comes to the screen. That notion is underlined by the fact that James Carville, Clinton's manic political operative, dreamed up the idea of making this picture and is credited as one of its executive producers. But the movie, All the King's Men, is not a cheesy, made-for-TV biopic. It is, in fact, a conscientious adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 Pulitzer prizewinning novel, which was also the basis of a much more rambunctious movie by Robert Rossen, which won the 1949 Best Picture Oscar.
The writer-director of the new film, Steven Zaillian, says he has never seen Rossen's very good film, and that probably makes sense. Zaillian's movie is much more a reimagining than a remake, and it's much more faithful to the tone of the novel, which is by no means easy to duplicate. Warren was a prolix and poetic writer, and a man torn between conflicting loyalties. He began his career as a Southern conservative, celebrating the agrarian traditions of the region, but found himself fascinated by the vulgar, driving (and possibly transformative) energy of Huey Long, Louisiana's legendary Governor--Senator-- presidential candidate, who was the model for his book's Willie Stark. Novel and film are narrated by Jack Burden (Jude Law), scion of the now enervated Louisiana ruling class, who, as a newspaper reporter and then as a gubernatorial lackey, is both the author's surrogate and the audience's--a man who wants to be an ironic observer of events but irresistibly becomes the instrument for destroying his surrogate father and, symbolically, the values of his own class.
In the new film, as in Warren's novel, Burden is Stark's equal, and the restoration of that balance is important to the movie's success. Commentators on Warren's work often say that it's a study in how power corrupts, and that Willie is essentially a good man ruined by dictatorial depravity. Sean Penn strikes that note, playing him with a kind of bantam-rooster energy--and good-ole-boy charm. But something else is present, thanks in part to Zaillian's alertness to Warren's nuances. Willie has what Huey Long surely did not: a primitive sense of original sin. He believes the world is essentially dirt and that man is born of that filth. He speaks of man living out his life between the stench of the diaper and the stench of the grave. There is, finally, no one in the novel or in this movie who is untouched (or unmoved) by that dark and hopeless fatedness. So you can, if you will, think of All the King's Men as a purely political parable, but that is to miss its blackest, bleakest meanings.