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Issue Date:  October 13, 2006

Unfulfilled potential

'All the King's Men' flounders; 'Half Nelson' is moving but inconclusive


Much of the problem with All the King’s Men must have started with the assumption that it was bound to be a strong Oscar candidate. After all, actor Broderick Crawford got one for his performance as Willie Stark in an earlier production of the story in 1949. Its plot and title is taken from Robert Penn Warren’s successful novel in which Stark was modeled on Huey Long, the powerful, populist governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932.

Director Steve Zaillian gathered together an exceptionally strong cast: Sean Penn as Stark, plus Jude Law, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins. But he never makes sense out of Mr. Warren’s novel, which tried to suggest a tragic dimension to the career of its chief character. Many in today’s audience may not even know Huey Long’s name. Unfortunately, Mr. Zaillian’s screenplay fails even to suggest that there was any reality to Stark’s initial idealism or to reveal the depths of his evildoing beyond his womanizing and an insatiable lust for power.

To begin with, the movie is just too loud -- Sean Penn’s constant shouting and James Horner’s relentless score are equally to blame -- and many have complained of the contradictory accents employed by the various actors. The director’s most embarrassingly grandiose decision, however, was to use the seal on the floor of Louisiana’s huge statehouse -- built by Huey Long -- in the opening credits, and then arrange to have the governor and his killer slowly bleed to death together there at the end.

Mr. Penn’s portrayal of this country bumpkin turned populist demagogue is one long rant, delivered with too many facial contortions. The story moves so quickly we wonder what necessary expository scenes got left out. Stark is hardly elected before he is pressing Jack Burden (Jude Law), an ex-newspaperman from an upper-class background, to uncover something on Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) that would derail the latter’s effort to impeach him. Was Stark corrupt from the beginning? Did he never act on his campaign cry to the poor, “Your need is my justice”?

Burden’s story seems more promising, and at times Jude Law’s acting is moving. Judge Irwin was a revered father figure to Burden in his youth; now Burden’s job is to dig up some dirt about him. But we never understand why Burden didn’t pursue Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet), the respected ex-governor’s daughter, after a moonlit swimming scene in the Gulf of Mexico. Burden doesn’t seem to care that he’s become a heavy drinker and a cynic. Why did he consent to go to work for Stark in the first place?

Director Zaillian wants his story to carry a moral but never establishes a foundation for judgment.

Stark exploits the Stanton name in Louisiana by appointing Dr. Adam Stanton (Mark Ruffalo), Anne’s brother, an ineffectual dreamer who likes to play the piano, to head a hospital complex. Stark may have been planning from the start to profit financially from this project, but it would help if we saw it in operation, presumably filling a real need. The situation never becomes clear.

The jumpy action is also heightened by Stark’s sudden addiction to alcohol and women. When we first meet him, he drinks only soda pop and is living happily with his scripture-quoting wife. Once he begins to get the adulation of crowds, however, there’s an abrupt switch: The governor has taken to alcohol, ogles attractive showgirls and has an affair with Anne while his wife simply disappears from view.

The overall result is that “All the King’s Men” fails to make us care about the narrative or the characters. Robert Penn Warren gave the producers a powerful story but they haven’t really told it.

A half nelson, according to my dictionary, is a “hold in which one arm is placed under the opponent’s arm from behind with the hand pressed against the back of the neck.” The movie Half Nelson, made by the writing/directing team of Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, won over Sundance audiences who were rightly impressed with the performance of the Canadian actor Ryan Gosling as Dan Dunne, a history teacher in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood. Dunne gets the attention of his 13- and 14-year-old African-American students by openly displaying his political idealism, giving them pep talks on change and relating his material to the Civil Rights movement.

“What can I teach them?” Dunne asks himself as he reflects in the rundown apartment he shares with his many books and a cat. Despite his idealism, it’s a good question, since cocaine seems to have a half nelson on him. He’s even taking it after class. Soon Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his lively students who’s good at basketball, comes across him when he is freebasing in the school bathroom. A cautious friendship develops. Their curious relationship quickly becomes the center of the film. Since Drey is so natural, unglamorous and likable, smiling only when the situation is irresistible, the two actors are able to carry the whole movie. Mr. Gosling’s charisma helps us believe that Dunne cares about his students but simply can’t fight his habit. Drey is both protective and intrigued by her unusual teacher. We even have a brief scene in which Dunne visits his parents, who protested against the Vietnam War; all realize that protest remains a necessity.

Soon Dunne is occasionally driving his pupil home and warning her away from Frank (Anthony Mackie), a local dealer. He even confronts Frank on one occasion, and it looks like a fight will ensue but violence is avoided. One might conclude that both men in different ways genuinely want to offer Drey guidance. We are nevertheless left with the impression that neither the movie’s makers nor Dunne have sufficient awareness of the complexities of daily existence for African-Americans.

The bits and pieces of “Half Nelson” never quite come together to allow its story to grow. We watch a girl’s basketball game, a student gives an informed summary of U.S. responsibility for the overthrow of Allende’s government in Chile, and Drey’s overworked mother (Karen Chilton) is shown as still able to make her daughter smile; she would be quite upset if she knew that Drey is briefly used to collect payments for dealer Frank.

The central problem is that the producers rightly steered away from a superficial happy ending. Their handheld camera creates a strong central situation, but their story seems to have no place to go. Dunne’s plight is so constant that we begin to be critical of his idiosyncratic approach to teaching: His sensitivity is fine, but the kids need a lot more than leftist editorials. Mr. Gosling and Ms. Epps are so good in their roles that they can carry the movie, but ultimately Dunne’s problem crowds out our concern for the young people he wants to help.

Joseph Cunneen is the regular movie reviewer for NCR. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2006

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