Monday Movie: All the King’s Men, by David Bax
Watch a decontextualized clip of Broderick Craword as Willie Stark from the early part of Robert Rossen’s All the President’s Men and you’ll see an incendiary depiction of anti-establishment, proletariat fervor. It’s inspiring. It’s galvanizing. Viewed from the perch of 2019, though, it’s also depressing because it would appear to be a glorification of the same populist rhetoric that has dragged the United States and a growing number of other countries backward. Taken as a whole, though, All the President’s Men doesn’t really believe in Stark’s angry idealism or, if it does, it doesn’t actually believe that it can do any good. All the President’s Men is one of the most cynical movies ever made about American politics and the axiom that power corrupts. It’s great.
Not so loosely inspired by the real life tale of assassinated Louisiana governor Huey Long, All the President’s Men is the story of Stark, an uneducated farm boy with a passion for change who first gets taken for a rube by the political powers that be but proves a quick study and finds himself rocketing up his state’s power ladder. Along the way, he gains devoted acolytes like John Ireland’s Jack Burden, Joanne Dru’s Anne Stanton and Mercedes McCambridge’s Sadie Burke, all of whom he gradually disillusions and devastates as he compromises his values in favor of power.
Rossen’s style is dirt-streaked and invigorating. Casting local non-professionals in crowd scenes and shooting on location, he captures the visceral, run and gun qualities of a grassroots political campaign on film. It holds up better today than the leaden, self-conscious “realism” of his other best known work, The Hustler. But maybe that’s because it’s still so desperately relevant.