The background to 'All the King's Men' - the nature of populist politics and saving one's own skin - is always a topical subject and thus you would expect it to give a good insight into what makes politicians tick.
However, due to the complicated nature of the story - and the small technicalities that are constantly being introduced - it becomes hard to concentrate on the message behind the events unfolding. Good acting performances are lost among a realm of details that would leave even the longest and most drawn out tribunal at a loss when trying to draw some decent conclusions.
Journalist Jack Burden (Law) follows Willie Stark's (Penn) rapid rise from local activist to governor of the State of Louisiana. Burden comes from a wealthy background, that differs from Stark's lower class upbringing. Nonetheless he fosters a respect for Stark's values and policies. When Burden leaves the newspaper he works for, which is opposed to the stance taken by Stark on many issues, Stark finds a place for him as his right-hand man.
When Stark tries to implement a series of liberal reforms, aimed at taxing the rich and easing the burden of the poor workers who elected him, he becomes the target of blackmail and impeachment attempts. When backed into a corner he strikes back using Burden as his muckraker in order to prevent his enemies toppling him. To do this Burden must confront his past and work against those who have loved him all his life and faces a dilemma of conscience as to where his loyalties should lie.
And this is where everything becomes a bit cloudy. The string of corruption that Burden is following becomes difficult to follow, more so when his own emotional issues are thrown into the equation, and it often seems that there is no end in sight.
The irony of Stark's journey from idealism to corruption is also lost in the story. Never once is the possibility that he has become a victim of his own fate explored.
Penn is excellent as Stark and could see himself in the running for an Oscar, yet again, as could James Horner for his score. However, it is difficult to believe that James Gandolfini will ever big anything other than Tony Soprano and he does nothing as Tiny Duffy, the evil face of Stark's political empire, to suggest otherwise.
'All the King's Men' fails to address the issue of how such corruption in politics as it displays is born; instead it focuses on how it expands and multiplies and is all the weaker for it.