WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
When idealistic small-town Louisiana mayor Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is approached by a powerful businessman (James Gandolfini) who offers him money to run for state governor, he can’t resist.
Appealing to the working class “hicks” – like him – across the state, Stark finds himself securing support from the most unlikely quarters – soon reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) finds himself on Stark’s staff.
But after he’s swept to power, it’s not long before his political rivals are trying to bring him down with a scandal.
Stark dispatches Burden to dig up the dirt on an influential judge (Anthony Hopkins), who’s leading the campaign against his boss – but who also happens to be the man who brought him up, like a father.
Burden’s one true love, Anne Stanton (Kate Winslet) is also drawn into the political house of cards, which can only tumble with dramatic consequences.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
Oscar-winning screenwriter (Schindler’s List) Zaillian takes a rare seat at the director’s chair to tell this 1950s political drama.
On this evidence, he’d be better staying behind his word processor, as this big picture remains a rather knotted mess. It’s rarely clear who’s doing what to whom and why.
Zaillian clearly enjoys the politics, but he doesn’t explain it, leaving much seeming confusing.
Even when the denouement arrives, it’s not clear whether Willie Stark is indeed corrupt or has just been framed by political opponents.
As a director, his borrowed heavily from a plethora of sources, so his imagery is often obvious and predictable – but in typical Hollywood fashion, at times this translates into moving and it’s always impressive to look at.
The weakness of the script and direction make it hard for the strong cast to rise to the occasion.
A powerhouse performance from Penn – spouting polemic from the top of the stone staircase to the state Capitol building – leaves you rather cold.
He’s clearly passionate, but rather unsympathetic – particularly not when he gets sucked from his idealistic and altruistic world view into the mire of political power and corruption.
Gandolfini is suitably slimey for his role, but the immensely talented Clarkson – as she was in Goodnight And Goodluck – is wasted.
Two of the more disappointing performances come from the English stars, Winslet – whose rather formulaic character never really gave her a fighting chance at shining – and Law, who doesn’t quite seem comfortable with the southern drawl, and whose character’s twisted loyalties never quite seem to ring true – having never particularly been a supporter of Stark’s politics, he seems all too happy to discredit the man he saw as his father.
Perhaps Zaillian’s biggest crime as a director was to let the film run past two hours – neither the story nor the characters justify the running time.