PG-13 Parents Strongly Cautioned.
for an intense sequence of violence, sexual content and partial nudity
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
The film is based on the 1947 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, inspired by the life of Louisiana’s flamboyant governor, Huey P. Long. There are themes of right and wrong, good and evil, and, of course, political expediency, but they somehow all get lost in this overlong spectacle that has a few fine performances, but that does not include Sean Penn in the lead.
The film has been set in the 1950s rather than the 1930s (as in both the novel and original Broderick Crawford film). It's the story of the rise to political power of Willie Stark (Sean Penn "Dead Man Walking") and the corruption that comes with it. It is narrated by Jack Burden (Jude Law "Cold Mountain"), a cynical young newspaper columnist who becomes interested in Willie at the beginning of his political career when he was the treasurer of a small Louisiana town trying to get a school bond passed. A twist of fate prompts Louisiana’s political machine to tap Willie to make a run for governor, and Jack is right there, following the story. To everyone’s surprise, the self-proclaimed hick, who dreams of improving the lives of the working man against the oil and utility companies who run the state, turns the tables on the people who thought he would be their puppet, gets elected Governor and starts out paving roads and building new schools, bridges and hospitals. But soon his plans for improving the lives of his constituents turns into a lust for power and the man who has refused to drink as a courtesy to his schoolteacher wife, is soon spending his time in boozy bars ogling scantly clad dancers. Jack falls under Willie's spell as easily as the multitudes who elected him in a landslide, and soon becomes part of the Governor’s staff as some kind of special assistant. But his assignment is basically to dig up dirt on anyone who opposes the Governor.
Sean Penn might have seemed to be perfect casting for this role, bringing his smoldering intensity to Willie’s character, but writer-director Steve Zallian ("Searching for Bobby Fischer") is unable to control Penn's energy and he ends up delivering an over-the-top performance. When you see him playing opposite James Gandolfini ("The Sopranos") you wonder why Gandolfini wasn't chosen for the role, instead of playing a hack local politician, who ends up as Willie's lieutenant governor. More importantly the plot hops around so much that the story only seems to be rushed and empty.
Many memorable scenes from the novel and original film have been ignored or given such short shrift that they don't really make much sense. In the 1949 film Mercedes McCambridge played the role of Sophie Burke, Willie's jealous gal Friday so magnificently that she won the Academy Award. In this version Patricia Clarkson "The Station Agent"), who would be perfect if only given the opportunity, has almost nothing to do. So much so that you wonder why she was even left in the film at all. Also the character of Willie’s football playing son appears in one scene, only to disappear forever from the film. His dramatic death was another high point of the original film. The fact that Willie is much-beloved by the people is hardly established before you see him becoming corupt. The oil companies attempts to drive him from office never becomes obvious which eliminates much of the dramatic tension Willie is supposed to be experiencing. The bond between Jack and his godfather, an influential judge played by Anthony Hopkins ("Silence of the Lambs"), is hardly established, making Jack's inner struggle when he's sent to investigate the judge after he crosses Willie, difficult to understand. Even the flashbacks to scenes of Jack’s childhood upper-class friends Anne (Kate Winslet "Titanic") and her brother Aaron (Mark Rufalo "You Can Count on Me"), children of a former governor of Louisiana, don’t register as important until Willie appoints Aaron to head a hospital which is in some trouble and which he's ill-equiped to handle.
The film is so misconceived in the most fundamental ways and poorly cast despite the wonderful actors, that I can only suggest seeing the original film, or reading the excellent novel. This one's just disappointing.