But first, let's consider the project from the cheap seats, where it would appear to belong to Sean Penn. Let loose with what is remembered as a large, meaty, all-American role within a properly Pulitzered and still-school-assigned megafiction (filmed already in 1949 and showered with forgotten Oscars), the actor goes for larger than life, wrapping his pinched frown around an unintelligible Louisiana drawl, swinging his arms like an autistic evangelist and pushing out his belly like he has 100 more pounds to heave around than he actually has. It's a florid, vein-popping spectacle.
Even so, Steven Zaillian's film is faithful to Warren in that it centers not on Penn's Willie Stark, a 1930s redneck do-gooder turned corrupt Louisiana governor, but on his cynical, ethically vacant right-hand man, Jack Burden (Jude Law), who narrates Stark's rise from small-time pot-stirrer to party stooge to self-made demagogue to, finally, a people's leader easily given over to the dark side of legislative malfeasance and backroom skullduggery. Zaillian proceeds in typical adapt-a-big-book fashion, condensing, telegraphing and boiling down the drama into info-bytes.
Burden is the tale's spoiled innocent, recounting his and everyone else's descent into iniquity. But Law is no asset he has little control over his accent and zero energy. The fallen include Burden's lost childhood love, Anne (Kate Winslet), and her brother, Adam (Mark Ruffalo), an idealistic doctor suckered into service by Jack. Meanwhile, it's hard to say why Stark is on the cusp of being impeached by the state senate or why the public opinion of Jack's retired-judge stepfather (Anthony Hopkins) warrants an investigation that consumes half of the film's running time. But it's clear that there's plenty of damnation, retribution and redemption to be dished out.
It would be sweet to believe that American government would be a clean-running engine if it weren't for the scum class meddling with popular opinion and gaining access to power without paying for the privilege. Propagandist and elite-exceptionalist Walter Lippmann would've ap-proved of Warren's scenario, whereby the likes of bootstrap kid Bill Clinton rising to the presidency is part of the problem, but George W. Bush taking the same seat is just how things are supposed to pan out for scions of the industrial aristocracy.