Take a gander at the scathing reviews of Steven Zaillian’s “All the King’s Men” by the leading critics, and you’ll realize instantly why it’s so rare for American directors to remake older films with political themes. A filmmaker can update a pulp yarn like “Cape Fear,” or a time-warp Jerry Lewis comedy, or a ’60s action movie like “Point Blank” (rechristened “Payback”), or a star-filled heist flick like “Ocean’s Eleven” with no risk to his or her reputation. There is no arbitrary, imaginary standard that reviewers will hold them to, and no acid-pen punishment if they deliver a compromised, commercial movie. From the studios’ perspective, meanwhile, those kinds of remakes engender almost no financial risk. That, of course, is the real coin of the Hollywood realm. For all the wailing by film journalists and discerning moviegoers about the avalanche of remakes and the lack of originality in American cinema, the path of least resistance has a magnetic pull on executives and filmmakers alike. So it’s an uphill battle all the way for a filmmaker with more weighty aspirations, such as Steven Zaillian or Jonathan Demme (“The Manchurian Candidate”).
While it doesn’t require a lot of gray matter to update a revenge flick or crime saga to the present, it is a major challenge to transpose a political parable. The original “All the King’s Men,” adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer-winning novel inspired by the rise and fall of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long, mostly took place in the ’30s. Zaillian shifts the story to the early ’50s, for no discernible purpose. Perhaps he figured the pre-war era might as well be pre-Columbian history to today’s audiences, or maybe it’s just impossible at this point to track down enough Depression-era cars.
More importantly, Zaillian has strained almost every iota of idealism out of the story. Americans are a cynical bunch (when they’re not being sentimental, that is), and the image of a genuine populist — even if only for a reel or two — may well have strained the credulity of Bush-era moviegoers. So a crucial montage sequence depicting the growing crowds turning out to hear gubernatorial candidate Willie Stark (played by Sean Penn) quickly morphs from an angry man finding his voice to a savvy performer hitting the notes he’d discovered can manipulate the masses.
The new version also eradicates any whiff of idealism surrounding the reporter Jack Burden (Jude Law), who joins Stark’s staff and through whom we witness the events. A man of some principle in the original film who is eventually enmeshed and complicit in Stark’s ruthless maneuvering, here he represents from the outset the failed promise of Southern aristocracy. Zaillian may be truer to Warren’s novel than Robert Rossen was in 1949, but the upshot is that Burden claims more of our attention than Stark in the second half of the movie. Burden’s painful longing for the romantic path not taken overshadows the governor’s ruminations on power and evil. Ultimately, Zaillian’s “All the King’s Men” is more Tennessee Williams than Huey Long, more booze-soaked Southern dissipation than foot-stomping political saga.
While Zaillian downplays the more controversial aspects of a quintessential American story of ambition and hubris, Jonathan Demme foregrounded the theme of covert power plays at the highest level in his 2004 remake of the Kennedy-era paranoid thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate.” The director and screenwriters Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris swapped out the Cold War for the War on Terror and replaced the original’s villainous Chinese and Russian communists with the executives of a multinational corporation (Manchurian Global) that is kind of a super-Halliburton. In addition, they updated the original’s streamlined black-and-white landscape with a high-gloss, aurally dense, TV-screen-saturated environment that — like a casual glance at CNN’s Headline News network — occasionally overwhelms the viewer.
The new version tweaks but keeps the shadowy brainwashed-assassin plot invisible to the general public. However, in its most audacious variance from John Frankenheimer original, “The Manchurian Candidate” depicts the ongoing campaign by the media and the government to distract, mislead, and control the population. It’s a gutsy, blistering critique of the current state of the union, but one that fell largely on deaf ears.
The critics were not kind to Demme, and (coincidentally or not) “The Manchurian Candidate” did lukewarm business. Reviewers are generally liberal in their politics, but I think they’ve been indoctrinated with the conservative attitude that movie stars — and the movies — should keep silent with respect to current events. That encompasses not only actor Sean Penn’s comments on the occupation of Iraq, but writer-director George Clooney’s avowedly political portrait of ’50s TV journalist Edward R. Murrow, “Good Night, and Good Luck.”
While the cinema is recognized — nay, embraced — as a catalyst for discussion of political and social issues in France, England, Israel, and throughout the developing world, any American movie that exposes the rotten parts of our system is considered in bad taste. These days the subject of politics has been relegated to documentary makers, with mixed results.
All of this may be a symptom of a larger problem, namely that movies simply don’t matter in our culture the way that they once did. In a world with 500 channels, video-on-demand, and the Internet, it’s exceedingly difficult for a new movie to galvanize the attention of the entire country, let alone provoke serious analysis and discussion. In the face of such yawning indifference, or overt hostility, it’s hardly surprising that the American directors willing to tilt at that windmill comprise a mighty small fraternity.
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