Tuesday, February 8, 2011

All The King's Men Is A Political Fairy Tale That Doesn't Quite Stand Up!

The Good: Decent character work and acting.
The Bad: Light on DVD bonus features, Overbearing soundtrack (when there is one), Develops overly fast.
The Basics: On a cointoss, I refuse to recommend All The King's Men, a very average political drama that got lucky and won the 1949 Best Picture Oscar.

Every now and then, I wonder if people who remake classic films ever feel cheated when the remake does far poorer than the original. It was only a few minutes after picking up All The King's Men for my Best Picture Project that I realized I had seen the remake of this years ago. In 2006, Sean Penn starred in All The King's Men and that film was not a success at the box office, nor when the Academy made their nominations the same year. While I recall enjoying it, I did not remember much of the specifics about it, so when I began watching the original film, it was a remarkably pure viewing I was having.

All The King's Men is a political drama about one man's rise to political power. A man of the people, Willie Stark's story is told in general terms; the state that he is governor of is never made explicit. As is the case when I review works based upon other works, this is a review of the 1947 All The King's Men, not the novel upon which it was based, historical fact or the 2006 remake. As a result, all character observations are based upon what actually appears in the film.

A reporter, Jack Burden, at the state capital is sent down to Kanoma to profile Willie Stark, an honest man who is running for County Treasurer. As Jack attempts to find what he wants to do in life, Stark loses his election and becomes a lawyer after two years of study. When a fire drill at a local school results in a structural collapse that kills some schoolchildren - an issue Willie foresaw and tried to campaign about - Willie is vindicated and the locals impress him to represent them in a claim against the county council. A worker for one of the gubernatorial campaigns, Sadie, is engaged to use Willie to split the vote to help her candidate win an election for governor. When Willie learns he is simply in the election to spoil it for another candidate, he becomes inspired to appeal to the common man and try to actually win.

Four years later, Willie runs again, though he frequently cheats on his wife and drinks now. He wins his election using crooked funds so he can try to make the changes he seeks. But soon, Willie is corrupted, despite building stadiums, hospitals and roads. His son drives drunk, killing a passenger after Willie's allies begin to run from his side. As Willie self-destructs, Jack watches it all, including the Stanton family's love of and rebellion against Willie.

All The King's Men is an ambitious film, but it moves along very quickly. As strange as it may seem given how I kvetch about old movies, All The King's Men seems to move along ridiculously quickly. As a result, Willie goes from being an honest to a dishonest politician in virtually the space of a scene change. Similarly, Willie's personal life transforms from a somewhat slow, likable guy in love with a woman who has taken in a neighborhood kid to a drinking, corrupt man who is cheating constantly on his wife.

In the case of All The King's Men, Willie's story is mixed with Jack's story of the Stanton family. Jack begins in love with the eager Anne Stanton and when she leaves him (as he rejects working for a corrupt newspaper), he drifts in his personal life. Anne re-emerges as one of several lovers Willie has taken throughout a debacle wherein Judge Stanton stands against Willie when he is asked to not indict one of Willie's corrupt friends. Anne, her doctor brother Adam and the Judge are woven in with Willie's story and the character study is made sufficiently deep by having the parallel character stories.

What works well in this film is the acting for the character of Willie Stark. Broderick Crawford is perfectly-cast as Willie Stark. Slightly pudgy and able to make his eyes look slow and almost dead, Crawford embodies exactly the type of hayseed he is supposed to be when the film begins. But as the movie goes on and Stark becomes more corrupt, the more his appearance works to create the appearance of corruption and excess. Crawford plays with his body language wonderfully throughout, holding himself tighter and more authoritatively as the movie goes on.

But Jack - who is the film's narrator - becomes more and more unlikable. Jack's character arc is more of a decent than Willie's in a lot of ways. While Willie clings to power, Jack exists as a husk of a man who simply clings to Willie. Because the protagonists are both unlikable and we're not rooting for either to either succeed or fail (the result of which is likely to be someone worse than Willie), the movie becomes harder to stick with.

The score for All The King's Men is erratic and nonexistent in most places. As a result, the music is basically mood music that tells the audience how to feel at given moments of the film.

In the end, the subtle and resonating message of All The King's Men is that power corrupts and this film presents the rather jaded view that it corrupts everyone without fail. One of the most easily missed moments of the film is that Willie has managed to take control of the media when he becomes governor. This explains how he maintains the popular support of the people of his state; the commonfolk never know how corrupt he has become. This does keep a decent air of realism to the film.

On DVD, All The King's Men comes with surprisingly few bonus features. For example, there is no commentary track and there are two previews for the 2006 version of All The King's Men. There are no other bonus features pertaining to this film, so those wondering about its creation or themes or anything else will be left in the dark by this one-disc DVD.

Ultimately, All The King's Men is a political drama that illustrates what we see too often in American politics: a person starts with a good idea and stance and becomes corrupted by power. It is worth noting that this is one of the few Best Picture winners where the director did not win Best Director and there is little surprise to that. This is a fairly unremarkable film in terms of the look and feel of the movie. As a result, it is very easy to take-it or leave-it.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]

For other political films and works, please check out my reviews of:
The West Wing
Charlie Wilson’s War
Wall Street


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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