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“If you don’t vote, you don’t matter,” proclaims Willie Stark (Sean Penn) as he campaigns for Louisiana governor in “All the King’s Men.” How fitting a subject for the Institute of Politics’ (IOP) first advance movie screening, held Tuesday, Sept. 12, at the AMC Loews Theater in Harvard Square.
Following the film, David T. Ellwood ’75, Dean of the Kennedy School of Government and Scott M. Black Professor of Political Economy, hosted a question and answer forum with several members of the production team: screenwriter and director Steven Zaillian, executive producer David Thwaites, and producers Mike Medavoy and Arnold Messer. Fans of actor Mark Ruffalo were disappointed, however, as he was not present in spite of advertisements to the contrary.
The four speakers eagerly expressed their pride in the film, which Medavoy calls their “labor of love.” The film was never intended to be a remake of Robert Rossen’s 1949 “All the King’s Men,” and was inspired purely by Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same title, said the filmmakers.
Zaillian says he has not seen the 1949 movie, and still hadn’t, as of Tuesday’s screening. He says he began anew from the novel, and discouraged his cast from watching the earlier version. Messer explains their attitude: “[Executive Producer] James Carville told us, ‘They’ve made eight movies on Hamlet. Hell, there’s only two on this one.’”
The movie addresses Willie Stark’s duality as an effective governor and a corrupt man, stealing money even as he builds the roads and hospitals he promised the people. The producers expressed high hopes for the film’s reception abroad.
The themes and “the tension between ends and means” are universal, said Thwaites. He noted that many other countries have a “less Pollyanna view” of government than America, that they care about results—like roads and hospitals—but have less of an expectation that their politicians will be free from corruption. According to Zaillian, Carville, who is also a political analyst, once remarked, “We didn’t invent corruption. Our politicians are just funnier.”
As one of the last movies to be shot in pre-Katrina New Orleans and a movie about Louisiana government, it seems natural for the filmmakers to consider how Willie Stark would have handled the disaster. Zaillian was reluctant to compare a Hollywood movie to a national tragedy, but acknowledged that Katrina was on all their minds.
Even pre-Katrina, the production team had been fascinated by Huey Long’s relentlessness and track record for making things happen. Messer related a favorite story of his: when Louisiana State University would not fund a new stadium, Long requested money to build new dorms, arranged them in a horseshoe, and lined the inside with bleachers. The speakers said that Long and Stark were men who could make things happen, but declined to speculate on the Katrina aftermath.
Ellwood’s final question to the panel directed attention back to audience. “What is the movie’s message to young people?” he asked. Thwaites was quick with his response: “If you don’t vote, you don’t matter.”
—Staff writer Reva P. Minkoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. —Staff writer Melissa Quina McCreery can be reached at email@example.com.
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