All the King's Men (2006)



Director:  Steven Zaillian. 

Starring:  Sean Penn (Willie Stark), Jude Law (Jack Burden), Anthony Hopkins (Judge Irwin), Kate Winslet (Anne Stanton), Mark Ruffalo (Adam Stanton), Patricia Clarkson (Sadie Burke), James Gandolfini (Tiny Duffy), Jackie Earle Haley (Sugar Boy), Kathy Baker (Mrs. Burden), Talia Balsam (Lucy Stark), Travis Champagne (Tom Stark), Frederic Forrest (Willie's Father), Paul Desmond (Slade), Kevin Dunn (Alex), Thomas McCarthy (Editor).

Remake of the 1949 movie about the man who was the dictator of Louisiana and a would-be dictator of the U.S.A.  It is loosely based on the life of Huey P. Long, who was a populist and sworn to snatch the leftovers from the tables of the rich to give something to the poor, but became a virtual dictator in order to accomplish his goals. 


Good movie.   Jack Burden grew up amid wealth and privilege.  As a youngster his best friends were brother and sister Adam and Anne Stanton.  In fact, Anne was his first and only real love.  He grew up and became a newspaper reporter for the local Chronicle.  His life changes when he meets the up and coming politician Willie Stark.  He writes reports on the politician, in fact, too many as he gets fired/quits from the newspaper.  He also watches Willie change from a very honest man to a man who learns how to manipulate the corrupt political system in Louisiana to the point that he becomes the state's virtual dictator.  And Jack is caught in this whirlwind of  political success.

Willie Stark becomes known to the politicians of Louisiana because of a dispute in Willie's backwater parish.  Willie knew that the new school being built in his district was faulty because of the fraud involved.  He warned everyone of the situation and he and his wife are virtually ostracized.  But one day the school collapses and three young children are killed.  Now Stark appears as the honest politician trying to stand up against the corrupt powers that be.  But the politicians want to use Stark rather than really see him succeed on his own.   In fact, they want him to run in order to split the the "hick " vote with another backwater politician, so the machine's candidate would win. 

Everyone in Stark's entourage seem to know he is being played for a sucker, but Stark himself.  Eventually, Burden and Stark's girlfriend Sadie Burke let the cat out of the bag.  And suddenly, in his bitterness, Stark becomes a new politician.  He becomes a demagogic populist condemning the corrupt political system and the rich folks who built it and run it for themselves first and foremost.   This brings great crowds to his public speeches, or maybe tirades would be a better turn.  As he would say "It takes a hick to understand a hick."

Populism is a political movement of the right, not the left.  Socialism always championed the industrial working class, but populism makes its battle between the rich in particular and the poor in general.  Populism may become fascism if the conditions are bad enough for the less fortunate. 

With his new message, Stark wins the governorship of Louisiana.  He quickly out-competes the rich in the use and misuse of the corrupt system.  He answers corruption with bigger corruption and lies with bigger lies. 

Stark hires Jack to work for him on such tasks as finding out dirt about other politicians or judges.  Jack is attracted by Stark's growing power.  But will he become totally corrupted by his association with Stark as the new governor gains greater and greater power?  And will Jack become alienated from his own social class as he associates with a man who flatters the "rednecks"?

Sean Penn is very good as Willie Stark combining good intentions with ambitious wishes.  Jude Law is terrific as the idealistic reporter who comes to work for the increasingly corrupted Stark.  My wife commented that Sean Penn didn't look mean enough to be Willie Stark.  But it's that combination of good and bad that is more interesting.  She had a little trouble drawing a connection between Willie Stark and Huey P. Long and my son was a little lost also, but I was able to follow it pretty readily, except for some difficulties at the very start, getting used to the fast pace and the southern accents.  I thought they could have made it more clear just how far Long had proceeded down the road of corruption and just how powerful he really was.   There was fear in the FDR camp of Long becoming a third party candidate and siphoning off Democratic party voters to bring about a victory for the Republican party. 

Maybe a reason for redoing this movie was to criticize President Bush II, who the left says is trying to make himself a dictator by demagogically preaching to "be afraid, be very afraid" of the terrorist boogeyman, by comparing him to the would-be dictator Huey P. Long.  After all, they recently did a movie about the fight of journalist Edward R. Murrow against the right-wing demagogue Joseph McCarthy who tried to stifle free speech.   

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.      


Historical Background:


See  All the King's Men (1949).



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