All the King’s Men

Sean Penn and Jude Law are going for Oscar’s gold in a tale about a man of the people, who will do whatever it takes to bring down a corrupt government in 1950’s Louisiana.
By  · Published on September 20th, 2006

You don’t have to be a psychic by any means to understand how a movie like this comes about. Probably about 2 or 3 years ago, a script was making its rounds within the Columbia Pictures organization. Within the script was a story about an outrageous, but loved Louisiana Governor who rose from his humble roots to challenge the corrupt government and fight for the rights of the working farmers. The story had its share of deceit, loyalty and political relevance, making it a sure winner. At that point, someone looked to someone else and said, “We are going to make this film, and it is going to win Oscars.” Or at least, that is how it may seem once you see the film.

The script was an adaption of a Robert Penn Warren novel by Steven Zaillian (not a re-write of the 1949 film with the same name, coincidentally.) The higher-ups then went to work, enlisting Zaillian to direct, James Horner and T-Bone Burnett to provide the score, and Avy Kaufman to put together an A-List cast that included the likes of Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, and others. The end result would be All the King’s Men, a film that seems to have been made with award winning in mind.

The film, for the most part, lives up to that purpose. The plot is interesting, but it feels somewhat prosaic as it sputters along, needing the outlandish exploit’s of Penn’s character Willie Stark to draw the audience back in after moments of talky melodrama. The performances in the film are strong, as can be expected. Jude Law is the standout, carrying the emotional weight of the film. His performance anchors the film while Sean Penn’s illuminates it. Every time Willie Stark, the eccentric politician, makes a speech it is electrifying, drawing the audience back in at least for a moment. The rest of the cast is not brilliant, but they seem to fit their roles well. They add value to the film where needed, but there are no standouts.

But strong performances from one or two leading actors does not by itself make a great film; we see them all the time in some very mediocre films. It must be supported by something else in order to ascend to the tops of Oscar’s glory, but the other elements of the film felt forced, as if the producers cared more about winning awards than about making a film that is rivveting. The score is beautiful, but it is often so loud that it almost overpowers the scene. The cinematography is stylish at certain points, and relatively uneventful at others. The film itself moves along very slowly as well, it’s two hour run time feels more like 3 hours.

When it comes down to it, All the King’s Men may do exactly what its producers had seemingly intended for it. It may be around come Oscar time. The story is good enough to keep you interested, but nothing more. Sean Penn and Jude Law should be recognized for their extremely strong performances; as they carry a film that would be just okay without them. But ultimately, even though I would recommend seeing this one (at least for the sake of being well educated on Oscar night), it is nothing special. Good enough to keep you in your seat until the credits, but no quite good enough to make you want a second helping. It begs the question of whether or not those responsible for this film were just trying too hard.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)