Willie Stark (Sean Penn) is chosen by mobster Tiny Duffy (James Gandolfini) to enter the race for Louisiana Governor. Tiny sees Stark as the wide-eyed innocent do-gooder who will split the vote and keep his man in office. Once Stark learns of this situation he plunges head on into the campaign and becomes the Governor of Louisiana.
While this is happening, young newspaper man Jack Burden (Jude Law) is covering the story for his paper, and begins to believe that Willie Stark might just be the right man for the job. Burden sees a fellow dreamer in Willie and thinks, just maybe, Stark might do some good.
Once in office Stark takes on the oil companies and state legislature, tyring to make good his campaign promises of spreading the wealth and creating new jobs, new schools, new roads and bridges, for the less fortunate of the state. The power brokers however see this man as a menace and fight to hold onto their wealth.
Oddly enough the movie doesn’t have a main character. The first half of the movie centers mostly around Stark, at times leaving his story to focus on Burden. In the film’s second half the focus shifts 180, as Stark’s story is moved to the back-burner in favor of Burden’s tale.
There are countess stories that branch off of Burden’s tale which involve his childhood best friend (Mark Ruffalo), who Willie wants to use for publicity, his childhood crush (Kate Winslet), who has her own secrets, his disapproving mother (Kathy Baker), his relationship with Stark and his staff including Stark’s gal Friday (Patricia Clarkson), his relationship with the influential man who helped raise him (Anthony Hopkins), who Stark wants Burden to bring down, and more.
The film feels very much like a large novel shoved into the small frames of a movie reel. There’s just too much there, and it’s so badly managed that you never really learn about the situations or characters. Was Willie Stark a good Samaritan that wanted to help out the unfortunate, or was he a crook and thief milking the state for money? The movie never decides, and, what’s worse, never even presents evidence either way. All we get is third-hand gossip.
The structure of the film leaves much to be desired. It opens in an odd flashback sequence that is troubling, and Willie’s initial forray into politic is less than adequately explained (and Tiny’s as a choice for Lt. Governor is never explained). In too many places the film feels like an unfinished rough-cut instead of a movie being pushed into the Oscar race.
The two men’s stories don’t really have much to do with each other, and the film would have been better served to put one or the other front and center instead of wobbling between the two. Nor do the flashbacks from Burden’s past, shown over and over again, add to any part of the film. It’s just a slow plodding exercise that seems to be there to give everyone a chance to act.
Speaking of the acting, it’s darn good. The film survives based on the performances of these actors – and considering Penn looks like he’s wearing a groundhog on his head for most of the film that’s something to be proud of.
The level of talent here sets expectations and demands certainly more than competence. Sadly that’s all we get. The film really, really wants to be an Oscar contender, but there isn’t a single performance, shot, line of dialogue, or piece of score, that is memorable, let alone remarkable. This film feels very much like a remake and a film based off a novel, but without the author’s perspective. We get characters, we get stories, but we don’t get a point. With the cast involved and a director like Steven Zaillian behind the camera I expected more than an underwhelming, two-hour, instantly forgettable film.