'All the King’s Men' tells the riveting story of an idealist’s rise to political power in the South during the 1940s and 50s. The story follows the rise and fall of charismatic politician, “Boss” Willie Stark (Sean Penn) and uses politics as the framework to explore the more profound dilemmas of human existence – sin, guilt and redemption. It’s a complex and captivating story of human nature, power, corruption, idealism, romance and betrayal.
'All the King's Men' is a film that reminds me of how Hollywood bluster, even at its most earnest, can still ring so hollow. In this film, we get the all-star the cast, the fiery monologues, the sweeping crane shots, and the bombastic music score. What we don't get is deep, resonant human drama, nor a believable script free from contrived melodrama and dead-end subplots, nor even lukewarm temperature political intrigue. This is a movie that should have had a lock on year-end critic's Best Of lists and been an Oscar shoo-in -- instead it rates as one of the biggest disappointments of the year.
Robert Penn Warren's classic novel 'All the King's Men' has already been brought to the screen three times before, first in 1949 by Robert Rossen and twice as a made-for-television film (in 1958 and 1999). But it is easy to see why, given our current political climate, acclaimed filmmaker Steven ('Searching for Bobby Fischer') Zaillian would be interested in refashioning it for modern audiences. Playing a character loosely based on Louisiana governor Huey Long, Sean Penn stars as the fictional Willie Stark. He's a Southerner, a rabble rouser and a populist -- the type of "man of the people" born to rise up and rattle the establishment. Aided in his rise to prominence by journalist Jack Burden (Jude Law), and a political aide and mistress (Patricia Clarkson) of duplicitous motives, Willie's incredible ascension to the highest offices of politics will soon unravel amid misguided alliances and scandal. Corrupted by the same corrosive values he originally pledged to fight at any cost, Stark learns that the first casualty of political power is innocence.
'All the King's Men' suffered considerable bad buzz prior to its theatrical release this past September. Following a poor reception at early festival screenings, the film sat on the shelf for almost a year, and reports of reshoots and post-production tinkering didn't inspire much confidence. The film finally debuted to harsh reviews and audience indifference, grossing a meager $7 million domestic against a $55 million production budget. I'd like to say that this is one of those times with critics and moviegoers got it wrong, but 'All the King's Men' truly fails to come together. The elements are there -- terrific source material, big stars, impeccable production values -- but nothing seems to gel. I can't recall a film as lavish, smart and good-looking that left me so unmoved.
The film's high-profile cast, which looks extraordinary on paper, is a total bust. Sean Penn just about explodes on the screen with jaw-clenched fury, all fiery speeches and arm waving. But it only reminds of why I prefer him as a character actor and not a leading man. He is commanding, yet oddly can't anchor Stark with any subtlety or vulnerability. We need to truly be able to distinguish between Willie the man and Willie the icon if we're to care about his fate, but Penn doesn't draw us in enough to tell the difference. I'm also starting to tire of Jude Law's recent penchant for playing reactive characters. Where is the spark and danger that so informed the promising young actor's early choices in roles? Even the always-luminous Kate Winslet (as the "slut on skates" Anne Stanton) is a bore. Large chunks of her storyline were edited out of the final cut, saddling her with a character that now feels underwritten and underutilized. Now, that's sacrilege.
Perhaps the film's ultimate failure, though, is that director Zaillian, who also adapted the screenplay, was just not able to retain the material's relevancy. Perhaps it shouldn't have been a period piece? Warren's story was certainly incendiary in its day -- bold, shocking and prescient -- but it now seems tame (power corrupts -- not exactly stop the presses material at this point). And Zaillian's lack of subtlety is surprising -- it is hard to believe this is the same man who wrote 'Schindler's List.' He hammers home every moment -- from failing to restrain Penn's histrionics, to overdoing the gold-drenched cinematography, to the bombastic score by James Horner. Zaillian is clearly going for an epic feel, but with so little new to say, his 'All the King's Men' is more museum piece than living, breathing motion picture. Given a better match between filmmaker, approach and material, a 2006 version of 'All the King's Men' could have refashioned Willie Stark as a populist hero for all times, a timeless character that continues transcend politics and party lines. Instead, he's as vapid as a Hollywood special effect. What a disappointment.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment offers up a fine-looking 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer for 'All the King's Men.' Given its budget and production polish, it is no surprise the film looks this good.
The source material here is certainly impeccable -- you won't find a blemish anywhere near this transfer. Blacks are spot-on, too. Contrast, however, is a bit blown-out, if on purpose. Whites do bloom, which lessens sharpness as well as detail -- it is not excessive, nor really distracting, but it can flatten the image a bit. Depth is still quite fine, with even small object detail visible in long shots, and shadow delineation is solid, if some of the most minute textures are lost amid the the darkness.
Colors are certainly stylized. Just about every shot is drenched in a diffused, orange-y glow. Director of photography Pawel Edelman's compositions are smothered in golds and silvers, which means primary colors are all but indistinguishable. Blues and greens especially appear quite desaturated, and the transfer almost looks sepia-toned. Again, this is clearly intentional, and there is little apparent chroma noise or instability to mar the presentation. All in all, a very nice transfer.
Sony continues to support uncompressed PCM soundtracks on 'All the King's Men,' with an effective 5.1 surround mix. Though the track is somewaht subdued at time in the rears, it otherwise gets the job done. James Horner's score was often cited by critics as a liability to the film, and it is pumped up in the mix often to such an extreme that it seems a bit campy. Surround effects tend to take a backseat to all this orchestral nonsense, as does dialogue, which though clear and intelligible is sometimes overpowered -- I had to boost volume to make out much of Sean Penn's over-the-top ranting, though sometimes it was a relief not to have to hear him. Technically, the mix is top-notch, with excellent fidelity and strong low bass. Dynamics are clean and forceful, with the music again especially rich and full-bodied. Though not incredibly immersive, 'All the King's Men' sounds mighty fine on Blu-ray.
Sony has not included a single supplement on 'All the King's Men,' not even a trailer.
'All the King's Men' is a film that on paper must have seemed like a sure thing. Great material, great cast, a huge budget -- in short, Oscar-bait. But rather than igniting the box office, it made one of the speediest trips to home video in recent memory. This Blu-ray release is fine enough technically, with a very good transfer and soundtrack helping to offset a complete lack of extras. Still, unless you are a diehard fan of the filmmakers or of political movies, the best I can recommend for 'All the King's Men' is a rental.