This political drama briefly springs into life when Sean Penn’s Louisiana gubernatorial candidate belts out his message of clearing away the corrupt good ol’ boys and giving his hick electorate the schools and hospitals they’ve long been denied. In office, he proves as good as his word, though populism comes at a price: underhand tactics to push through his reforms. But can good really come out of bad? An intriguing question, you might think, yet Steve Zaillian’s adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning Robert Penn Warren novel (inspired by real-life ’30s Southern demagogue Huey P Long) shies away from it, concentrating instead at undue length on the crisis of conscience and class betrayal faced by his patrician advisor (Jude Law, underwhelming). This may be more faithful to the source, unlike Robert Rossen’s punchy 1949 Oscar-winning version, but it somehow misses the real story here, leaving sidelined Penn gruesomely over-emphatic as he shouts and waves his arms to get some attention in what should be his movie.
There are ambitions towards complexity, though Law’s overused voiceover and sundry fumbled plot points indicate the film’s struggle to compact its story into just over two hours. Stuttering and uninvolving, the result plays out its would-be noble drama of lost ideals in a hermetically sealed universe where every part is played by name actors (Winslet, Hopkins, Ruffalo etc) spouting overworked dialogue, while James Horner’s score thunders on in the key of self-importance. Even the chilling grey colour palate seems all wrong for a story set in the sweat-pit of Deep South graft. What should have been an incisive study of the American political scene turns out a lumbering celluloid white elephant.