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ALL THE KING'S MEN

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Steven Zaillian
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Sony Home Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 128 Minutes
Release Date: December 19, 2006

“And if any man stands between me and fulfilling your rights, I will strike him down SO HELP ME GOD!”

Film ***

I can’t think of another film I was anticipating more in 2006 than the remake of All the King’s Men. Come to think of it, I was anticipating it in the fall of 2005 when it was originally slated for release. It got pushed back nearly a year not because the studio feared it was a misfire, but because writer/director Steven Zaillian wanted as much time as he could devote to post-production.

The film finally got released this past fall just as all Oscar hopefuls do. Unfortunately, the results were horrendous from both the critics and the box office. It was slammed by nearly every critic and was pretty much ignored by the moviegoing public.

So what happened? Judging from its stirring trailer and the phenomenally huge cast, it would seem that this film wouldn’t get the large amount of bad press it got, not to mention the low box office take. Even for a remake, I thought this would end up receiving exactly the opposite kind of reception it got.

Well, while I’ll admit that the film isn’t as masterfully great as I expected (maybe I set my expectations too high sometimes), All the King’s Men is a most beautifully filmed and engaging political drama. Much like The Black Dahlia, it’s a grand entertainment that is not without imperfections and has a potential to be even greater, but the overall sheer quality of the film is undeniable. And the performances are ones for the history books. And if you are as huge a fan as I am of Sean Penn’s, then you’re in for a real treat as the gifted actor turns in another milestone performance.

Penn stars as Willie Stark, a character that is fully based on that of larger than life political figure Huey Long. The story chronicles Stark’s rise to the top of the political ladder in 1940s New Orleans. At first, he doesn’t appear to be an enthusiastic candidate. But it isn’t until learning that he’s being used as a puppet for a gubernatorial campaign that a spark within him ignites a raging and charismatic political figure the likes of which the people of Louisiana had never seen before.

Ridding himself of the campaigners using him, Stark decides to run on his own terms and gains the public’s confidence through a series of outlandish speeches (a truly riveting moment). But as politics so often proves, the true colors of the politician are brought to life once he makes it to the office of the Governor. The story is seen through the eyes of a reporter named Jack Burden (Jude Law), who became no less than Stark’s personal aide.

As the story progresses, Stark’s corruptible nature seems to increase. His shady tactics don’t seem to sit well with powerful figures who want to see nothing more than impeachment proceedings. At the top of that list is a state judge (Anthony Hopkins) whom Stark hasn’t been able to put in his pocket.

Though writer/director Zaillian did a noteworthy service by adapting this version directly from the original novel, as opposed to the first movie, over-plotting does prevent All the King’s Men from being the superb masterpiece it could be. One subplot, in particular, involving a former flame of Jack’s (Kate Winslet) comes in at a point when we should be concerned about other storylines. But ironically enough, another subplot involving her brother (Mark Ruffalo) does payoff in a most powerful ending to the film.

But in the midst of its minor flaws, All the King’s Men has so much to admire. From the outstanding performances, lead by the always magnificent Penn (who I honestly think is deserving of another Best Actor Oscar nomination), to the marvelous directing, visually stunning cinematography and a striking score courtesy of the great James Horner, the end result is a film that was so not deserving of the critical backlash it received.

By now, those who read my reviews know that I tend to stand up for a couple of films every year that took an unjust beating. For 2006, All the King’s Men is indeed such a film. Though not without flaws, this film gets my vote all the way. It’s a tremendously acted and astonishingly crafted piece of filmmaking.

Video ****

For my money, I think this was Sony’s best achievement of 2006 in terms of video quality. I’m also pleased that the studio chose to release it only in widescreen format. The stunning anamorphic picture delivers consistently, enhancing the top notch directing and the fantastic cinematography courtesy of Pawel Edelman (also deserving of an Oscar nod). The image is thoroughly clean and crisp, with dynamic colors to spare and no flaws in sight. Amazing job!

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix is superb in accompanying such sound elements as the rousing music score from James Horner, and dialogue is tremendously clear (the numerous speeches delivered by Penn are a true highpoint). It’s a grand sound mix elevating an otherwise dialogue-driven piece into rare top sounding quality.

Features ***

For this Special Edition release, Sony does this release quite well. Despite the absence of a potentially fascinating commentary track, we do get some well made behind the scenes documentaries including “The Making of All the King’s Men”, “Shake Hands With the Devil” (which explores the political aspects of the film), “An American Classic” (a look at Robert Penn Warren and the legacy of his book), “The Legend and Lore of Huey Long” (an exploration of the political figure that inspired the lead character) and “L.A. Confidential: On Location with All the King’s Men”. Also included are Deleted Scenes and an Alternate Ending.

Summary:

All the King’s Men may have gotten the brutal treatment by critics in its initial release, but I’m here to set the record straight: this is a most gripping political drama with brilliant acting and gorgeous scenery. Not without flaws, but nowhere near what the bad reviews made it out to be. A true must see!

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