This is one of those films where everyone cracks in the end but ultimately you just figure that someone should stay strong by the end. In the end nobody can stop the allure of money, fame, or general power. It’s a pretty entertaining film the whole way through and definitely one that I would consider to be on the tragic side as well. It shows just how quickly things can start to snowball when you’re on the wrong side.
The movie starts off with Jack being sent on a mission to cover some political goings on in a small town. It’s basically run like a mafia where you can’t talk against the people in charge or they will start to try to bully and scare you into leaving. It’s certainly not an easy town to beat but one man named Willie Stark wants to make a difference. He loses in his bid to join the council and then loses his bid to become governor but something changes within him. 4 years later he runs for governor and this time he wins. The guy has a lot of fire to him and is a passionate spokesperson. Still, is he really the same man fighting for the common folk or did he lose something along the way?
There’s an old saying about how the only way to climb to the top is to use the skeletons in your closet as footholds. Basically you’re going to be accumulating a whole lot of them as you make shady deals in order to stay one step ahead. While the saying is likely a bit dramatic, that’s effectively what happens here. Willie always had some edge to him but by and large he had good intentions. Then he got more and more desperate to the point where becoming governor became his dream more for the sake of doing it than for actually helping people anymore. Perhaps he was still better than the opposing party but at this point it was going to be hard to tell them apart because they ended up being the same kind of people.
It’s pretty crazy how Willie started using his power to beat people up, murder them, and even to cheat on his wife. The guy had absolutely 0 moral scruples by this point and yet his friends just went along with it for the greater good. That’s why the supporting characters are annoying here because they are all complicit in what’s going on. They ended up going along with this plan even when they knew it wasn’t right and never really tried to talk some sense into him. Sure, halfheartedly they would say something here or there but I mean just standing up to him and saying straight up that this was a bad idea. If he could have turned over a new leaf sooner then that would have been a really good thing.
In the end Willie is basically a big antagonist here. He’s an interesting character to watch as we really saw his whole journey but yeah he was just another mobster by the end. It’s just rare that you get to see the origin of how he rose up like this. He’s also a charismatic main character so you can see how some of the other people in the movie would be fooled. You have to keep your guard up at all times. His secretary Sadie should have kept her guard up around her feelings and then the whole thing would have been less emotional for her. Basically she liked him but never really stood a chance since he likes to mess around which would just make her more and more upset. It would have been a toxic dynamic either way.
Jack was the main character for a while although you can argue that the role does shift between him and Willie at times. It can always be close at the very least. Jack isn’t very likable here though because the guy just doesn’t have a backbone. When Willie starts an affair with the girl he’s always loved (Anne) he doesn’t do anything about it. He still works for Willie and while he’ll throw in some insults once in a while, he doesn’t just leave. Leaving could be easier said than done but you have to rip the band-aid off at some point and how can you work for the guy who took your girl? It just doesn’t make any sense.
He also straddles the fence for way too long before actually choosing a side and a lot of damage is done in the meantime. Of course Anne doesn’t look good for any of this either and ultimately she enjoyed being rich way too much. She didn’t seem to care who she would be with as long as she had stature and money. So Anne felt very insincere and Jack was probably a bit too desperate in trying to be together with her. She didn’t exactly have his back when he had to leave his parents’ house in disgrace and so even if she were to come back to him once he had money, it just wouldn’t be worth it.
Then you have the Judge who had a great reputation and always tried to do the right thing. Unfortunately one of the messages in the film is about how everyone has made at least one big mistake and unfortunately that was true of him as well. We never actually learn exactly what he did and I would say that’s a style change that works well. We don’t have to know exactly what he did to know that it was easily recognizable and that it was something really bad. It’s so bad that the Judge basically calls it quite at that point and it’s a shame because it would have been nice if he could have stayed true to the end.
Finally you have Adam who was the best character in the movie for me. He had a tough road as well but at the end of the day he tried to stay true to his sense of justice while helping out as many people as possible. It’s still a tricky road for him though and he has to watch all of the lives being lost all around him. Ultimately he continues to do what he thinks he has to by the end.
Overall, All the King’s Men is a pretty good movie. It’s got a bit of a jaded view on humanity and on how everyone will ultimately be corrupted in the end but beyond that I would say the execution is on point. Even as things keep on getting worse for the heroes you can’t help but wonder how things will play out next. The film is fairly long and so the journey really feels complete as we watch Willie from beginning to end. It shows just how much he has changed within that adventure to the point you can barely recognize him. It works well as a cautionary tale. I’d like for some of the characters to have been a little more likable and gotten off the train early but sometimes nobody actually steps up as they wait for someone else to do it.