Watching All the King's Men, it is hard to believe that writer-director Steven Zaillian is an Oscar-winning screenwriter (for Schindler's List). For that matter, it is hard to believe that this film was made by the same guy who previously directed Searching for Bobby Fischer and A Civil Action, two very fine films about, respectively, a young chess prodigy and a personal injury lawyer whose greed is thwarted by pride, obsessiveness and, ultimately, a sort of moral self-reflection.
Those films had a clarity of vision and a clarity of exposition that made them truly engaging, even—if not especially—when characters and situations turned out to be more complicated than we thought. But All the King's Men is just murky and muddled throughout. This film was originally going to come out one year ago, but it was held back because those who saw it found it confusing and hard to follow. Zaillian spent months re-editing the film, but apparently to no avail; all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put this movie back together again.
The film does have a talented cast, and it's not hard to see why so many worthy actors were willing to hop on this particular bandwagon. The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, which in 1949 became a film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, and Supporting Actress; and there was every reason to believe that a new version might get some of that attention, too. But most of them never get a chance to make much of an impression, in the end.
There are exceptions to this. Sean Penn, who has often been criticized for going over the top or taking himself too seriously, is almost ideally suited for the part of Willie Stark, a Louisiana politician who wins ...1