Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel All The King's Men told the archetypal story of Willie Stark, a Louisiana politician (modeled on real-life governor Huey Long) who fails as an honest idealist, but succeeds as a corrupt pragmatist. In writer-director Steven Zaillian's new movie version, Sean Penn plays Stark, who putters along ineffectually with his pie charts and quiet outrage, then breaks out of the pack when he throws away his prepared speeches and starts yelling at "the hicks." All The King's Men similarly sparks when Penn goes all oratorical on his underclass constituency's collective ass, browbeating them into understanding that that they outnumber those rich folks who withhold access to jobs and education. For a few minutes, scattered across two hours, Penn and Zaillian illustrate how demagoguery works.
But for some reason, Zaillian's All The King's Men isn't really about the politician, but about the cynic who shadows him. Penn goes from likable loser to swaggering villain in roughly the space of a cut, while most of the last two-thirds of the movie is given over to journalist-turned-political-aide Jude Law's tangled backstory and not-so-steep slide into disillusionment. It's exciting to ponder the prospect of two supremely talented actors working off each other—or for that matter, off the likes of Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, and James Gandolfini—but Zaillian quashes those hopes with his stodgy shooting style, which keeps people isolated in separate frames, delivering competing monologues. Worse, those monologues are ridiculously overwritten, and not made any more comprehensible by thick, fake-y Southern accents.
All The King's Men's ponderousness continues all the way to the final slow, spiraling zoom into the Louisiana state logo, but the movie's more damnable problem is its irrelevance. Robert Rossen's 1949 movie version was exciting because it told truths about the American political machine that everyone knew, but few openly acknowledged. The major challenge facing Zaillian was how to connect the corruption of the mid-20th century to the corruption of today; but it's a challenge that he essentially ducks. Penn's power is built on blackmail and populist pandering, and while those vices persist, Zaillian presents them as the quaint products of a backwater state in a bygone time. He's made a movie about monsters, not men, and in 2006, it's the men we most need to fear.