Willie Stark (Penn), an idealistic salesman, is seduced into standing as governor of his home state by businessmen who plan to use him to further their political means. Discovering this, Stark chooses to stand alone, but quickly learns that you have to do bad to do good in politics.
Corruption spreads like laryngitis at a make-out party through Steven Zaillian’s unapologetically old-fashioned political drama, based on Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel. There are no good guys here, only not-so-bad guys — and lots of ’em. It all makes for some complex plotting, but leaves an audience with no-one to root for and more than a little confused.
Though sold as a portrait of a dirt-track Southern salesman-turned-politician who wins hearts and votes through noisy promises and moral relativism (is it wrong to be corrupt if you’re helping the needy?), this is actually a much wider-reaching ensemble piece about the delicate balance of right and wrong within us all. But its commendable ambition is its undoing. In attempting to tell six or seven different tales in the space of two hours, it leaves them all with a few key chapters ripped out and an all-purpose ending that short-sells every one.
The mass around which the characters orbit is Sean Penn’s Willie Stark, a rotund tornado of a politician who starts as a humble man with a plan and ends up as nefarious as the fat-cat government-controlling businessmen he’s sworn to defeat. Penn’s is the kind of performance on which Oscar campaigns are hitched. That doesn’t necessarily make it interesting to watch, it just means it’s huge. But his is not a particularly layered character; when shouting speeches from pulpits, sweeping staircases and any even slightly raised area he can call a stage, he’s transfixing: a giant, angry showman, a frenzy of righteous indignation, spastic gesticulation and hair with a life of its own. But without an audience at which to bellow he has little real interest. His wiliness only goes so far as making threats; other characters talk of his cunning, yet we see nothing of it. He’s really shown as a knuckle-dragging thug, dispensing others to do dirty work and chewing fatly on his Southern accent like
a great wet gob of tobacco. His frequent absence from the screen is perhaps meant to haunt, but he’s all too easily forgotten.
The rest of the cast may be shouted down, yet are all unimpeachably excellent, from Jude Law’s cynical journalist employed as Stark’s negotiator/arm-twister, to Anthony Hopkins’ hushed judge, the only man to stand against Stark. But Steve Zaillian asks too much of them, expecting their collectively immense talent to paper over the many cracks in his screenplay and turn a few lines into a complete character. Kate Winslet, as Law’s character’s long-lost love, is particularly handicapped by a character who gets almost nothing but exposition throughout.
Every sub-plot feels undercooked. There is the sense that somewhere is the extra footage needed to turn this into a terrific three hour-plus film. The gaps in the character arcs are so cavernous that the rest of the movie falls down them and the audience is left utterly befuddled. The delayed release seems to have given Zaillian too much time to edit, to the point that he’s reached a running time that’s easy on the buttocks but tough on the story.
There are, of course, points to be made about the course of good intention in government being derailed by big business, and this has obvious parallels with the modern world. But in trying too hard to hammer home a worn political message, Zaillian has tragically edited out the entertainment. And no amount of Sean Penn scenery-devouring can bring it back.
A frustrating experience. Its beautifully shot, acted and designed, but theres little cohesion in the story. Maybe one day well see a better cut, but for now this is a sadly fumbled opportunity.