In 1950s Louisiana politics, corruption is rife. Bribery and blackmail are the norms, juicy state contracts handed to whoever can afford to pay for them.
When a local school collapses killing three children, jaded reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law) travels out to a backwater town to investigate the case. He finds little he doesn't know about, except Willie Stark (Sean Penn), an idealistic local finance minister, who had tried to expose the double dealing behind the building of the school, but failed.
The deaths of the children create a wave of popular anger, and Stark is convinced to run for governer on the back of it. So begins the story of his rise and fall, and that of Jack, who is inescapably drawn to the one person he finds real in a state of fakers. Throughout, he struggles against the corrupting nature of power, and the question of whether ends can ever justify means.
This weighty, worthy picture has "Oscars" written all over it in golden, six foot high letters. The all star cast, the wholesome American democratic subject matter, the glossy production values and orchestral score - eyes are undoubtedly fixed firmly on a truckload of nominations.
Whether it deserves them is another matter (assuming Oscar winners ever deserve them). Steven Zaillian's directing is taken off the shelf of any hollywood blockbuster; montages, flashbacks and spelling things out for the viewer. He does little but try and set up a platform for his array of stars to shine. But they don't quite manage it.
Jude Law delivers a rather anodyne performance, seemingly unable to find purchase on a charcacter whose moral footing shifts rapidly. By the end, he just seems a bit bored by the whole affair, and his clunky voiceover adds to the impression that Zaillan was a bit out of his depth.
James Gandolfini is more entertaining as fat career politician "Tiny" Duffy, though as is often the case in big movies he doesn't get enough screen time. Winslet has too much, and does little with what she's given. Anthony Hopkins phones in his morally upright eccentric aristocrat, having played the role a thousand times before.
All in all, All the King's Men is relatively dull, but it's rescued from complete tedium by an energetic, entertaining performance from Penn. Flailing his arms desperately, he delivers many a rousing speech to his "hick" voter base. In private he's a more complex figure, his moral slide subtly indicated by his gradual shift from teetotaller to alcoholic.
This array of talent can probably all do better - and certainly have done in the past. But if a shower of small golden statues results, the ends will have very definitely justified the means here.