“The King’s Men’s Road”

Well, it’s officially Fall. The new television season has started. Football is being played. In the movies, we’ve put away the random explosions, the buddy comedies, and the glut of spandex laden heroes. It’s grown folks movie season, the time for actors and studios to begin their Academy Award stumping (or dumping with movies they couldn’t place any other time of the year). All the King’s Men is a bit of both.

All the King’s Men, a remake of the 1949 Oscar winner, tells the story of the rise of a charismatic everyman politician and his eventual fall due to the lure of corruption. Sean Penn plays Willie Stark, a self-described “hick” (modeled after Louisiana’s governor, Huey Long), a seemingly honest man cast about in a sea of backroom, backwater politics and the Good Ol’ Boy network, swimming against the tide of corruption. Used by controlling interests to split the “cracker” vote until he becomes his own man; unfortunately, being his own man also means being fully capable of falling into his own self-made pit of corruption.

Jude Law portrays jaded reporter, Jack Burden, whose guiding philosophy of “what you don’t know won’t hurt you” keeps him as more observer of life than participant. He goes so far as to admit that “I don’t care. If I did, I’d do something about it.” Between the two characters, we have a fascinating character study, a time of when politicians were allowed to be characters not overly packaged commodities. As such, Sean Penn and Jude Law give noteworthy turns (though I still have no idea what accent James Gandolfini’s Tiny Duffy was affecting).

The temptation of power becomes that Stark effectively gets in bed with the devil in order to do the right thing. Believing that we’re all sinful creatures, but that good can come from bad, Stark doesn’t quite realize his fundamental problem: that he can no longer tell good from wrong, worthy ends from evil means.

Duffy: “God works in mysterious ways.”
Stark: “Sometimes He has other’s do His work.”

Ultimately, this movie is about the pursuit of truth, and conversely, how the truth pursues you. Even after professing that “I”m gonna keep my faith in the people. You know why? Time brings all things to light,” Willie Stark doesn’t quite understand the nature of faith and truth. His first problem with the truth revolved around how best to convey it. He sounded every bit like the same old politician the people had heard before. Only after he finds his voice does he decide to incarnate the truth, be what it is the people need and tell them what they need to know. S sometimes the full truth is too complicated, especially for sheep-like “hicks.” He became one of them, a “superficial sap.”

Despite his vowing not to be used by the powers – the Empire, the imperial order – reality says that the reach of rampant consumerism, fueled by global capitalism and an individualistic sensibility, and ruled by strict economic and militaristic control, or in this case, centralized power in the hands of a few huge corporations is rarely denied. Stark’s “The power is in the hands of the powerless,” meek shall inherit the governor’s office rhetoric reminds us of a what if someone took Christ’s message of being about the poor and ran on his message as a political platform. Like Christ, Stark’s promises to the poor was all but a declaration of war to the rich/the Empire.

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned–“ Romans 5:12

Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet as the star crossed love interest of Jack Burden) tells Jack something that her brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo) said: “Everything else could be filthy and corrupt, but a man didn’t have to be.” We see in Willie Stark how corruption starts small. Sometimes we feel the pressure to tow the company line, the Ol’ Boy, status quo; serve the Powers That Be. Sometimes we rationalize our behavior as pursuing good, if by poor means. Sometimes we’re “shaded by … the sins of your own entitlement.” And sadly, sometimes we see/know the truth but we “push it outside of our head.”

Stark says it best when he says that “Sometimes a man can be so full of want he forgets what it is he truly wants.” Because eventually, Stark finds himself slowly adopting the methods of the empire, feeling the corrupting power of political machinations – be it bribery, threats, coercion, or using people’s or their weakness against them. His sentiment is echoed in the book of James (1:13-15): “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

“The Truth is always sufficient. Just find the Truth.” –Stark

The truth is scary. It always has a way of finding its way to the surface, no matter how well hidden or buried. Stark tells us that “The only way to not know is to not want to know.” The truth goes to the original sin nature that Stark so often rails against throughout the movie. We start with us being broken. When all is said and done, our very nature is broken. As their sins keep finding them out, it kept leading to death; the schemes of the empire turning to ashes in their mouths.

“You only get a couple of moments that determine your life. Sometimes only one.” –Jack Burden

The last step in their journey follows what Jack tells Adam about himself, that he “can’t look at someone broke without wanting to fix them.” Ultimately, the sins must be paid for, by the blood of a (second) Adam, the sacrificial lamb (which gives special resonance to Stark’s early campaign slogan of “nail ‘em up”).

It’s been a long summer. I had almost forgotten what good, complex storytelling, with rich, complicated characters was like. The “problem,” such as it is, is that the movie is very self-conscious of how its message may resonate with us today. (Beware of films bearing narrator voice overs.) In trying to make a statement about – and playing to – our cynicism with our elected officials, the struggle of our idealism against “the way things work,” All the King’s Men drags a bit under its own weight. As political cautionary tales go, it hits all the marks. As a film, it doesn’t transcend them.

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