Louisiana newspaper reporter Jack Burden takes a personal interest in Willie Stark, an idealistic small-town lawyer. Circumstances develop that result in Stark's being urged to run for governor by a local political leader, Tiny Duffy. Jack has been raised around politics. He is the former lover of Anne Stanton, whose father was once governor. Jack was raised by his godfather Judge Irwin, an honorable man.
In time, Jack and political strategist Sadie Burke reveal to Stark that he is a dupe in the governor's race, expected to split the vote, spout the party line and lose. Stark vows not to be fooled again. He defies Duffy publicly and begins to give speeches with straightforward talk that the public appreciates. He becomes governor in the next election, using any means necessary. Duffy now works for him as lieutenant governor. He also has a silent, menacing driver and bodyguard called Sugar Boy. Finally, he recruits Jack to work for him as an adviser.
Judge Irwin disapproves, seeing Stark as an opportunist. Anne Stanton seems to agree and so does her brother, Dr. Adam Stanton. Willie Stark is a persuasive man and knows how to get his way. He intends to build a new public hospital and convinces Dr. Stanton, an idealist, to run it for him. He also begins an affair with Anne Stanton, provoking Sadie's jealousy and Jack's disappointment.
Criticized publicly by Judge Irwin and embroiled in increasing political controversy, Stark demands that Jack dig up dirt on the judge to be used against him. Jack insists that no such dirt exists, but he uncovers evidence that, many years ago, Judge Irwin accepted a bribe to get his job. Following this revelation, the judge commits suicide, and Jack suffers great guilt, added to by discovering that Judge Irwin was actually his biological father.
Stark embraces various corruption necessary to consolidate his power, using patronage and intimidation to get his way. Told that the hospital is a fraudulent front project to enable the governor to rob the state and frame him (although Anne and Jack both say this is not true), Dr. Stanton becomes incensed when he learns of Stark's relationship with his sister. He waits at the state capitol and assassinates Stark, and is shot and killed in turn by the governor's bodyguard.
The truth is that the murder was influenced by Sadie and Duffy, the latter with the intention to become governor after Stark's death.The film (with the exception of flashbacks) is set during the early 1950s. The book is set during the Great Depression, the period of Huey Long's ascendancy.
Jack’s doctoral research storyline is not in the film. His research was about Cass Mastern, an ancestor who lived in the Antebellum South and fought in the American Civil War. The book devotes an extensive passage to the story of Mastern and the way in which he unwittingly and drastically influences the lives of others, which many critics have argued serves as the novel's moral center. Jack walks away from his study of Mastern because he is unwilling to accept the way in which people's actions influence the fates of others.
The storyline of the book involving Tom Stark is removed. He is seen only a few times in the film. In the book Tom impregnates a girl, which threatens his father with a scandal.
The film ends a few minutes after Willie Stark’s assassination, explaining little (through newspaper headlines) about what takes place after the event. In the book, Jack Burden explains many things that take place after the assassination, which includes son Tom’s death.
Filming took place in New Orleans, Morgan City, Donaldsonville, at the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge and many other places in Louisiana.
The film garnered strong Oscar "buzz" before its initial opening. Entertainment Weekly in its August 18, 2006 issue included All the King's Men in its Oscar Preview, and said the film was most likely to win an Oscar.
The world premiere was held at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2006, where the film was first screened to the press. A special screening was held at the Tulane University in New Orleans on September 16, 2006.
In spite of its high-profile cast, direction and production team, the film was a massive failure, both with critics and at the box office. Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes gave it a "Rotten" rating of 11%, based on 153 reviews with a consensus stating "With a scenery-chewing performance from Sean Penn, an absence of political insight, and an overall lack of narrative cohesiveness, these Men give Oscar bait a bad name."
A. O. Scott (New York Times) expressed disappointment with the film: "Nothing in the picture works. It is both overwrought and tedious, its complicated narrative bogging down in lyrical voiceover, long flashbacks and endless expository conversations between people speaking radically incompatible accents." Michael Medved gave All the King's Men two stars (out of four) calling it "depressing and disappointing", a "stodgy melodrama" and a "pointless, pretentious, plodding period-piece".
There were, however, a few critics who endorsed it. Richard Schickel (Time Magazine) liked the movie, arguing that "it's much more faithful to the tone of the novel" than the original. Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) praised the film's "undeniable moral seriousness" and the actors' "exceptional ensemble work." He argued that Zaillian's script and direction "expertly extracted the core of this greatest of American political novels, a work that is both of its time and outside it."
Recently, the film was featured in Nathan Rabin's ongoing blog feature for The Onion's A.V. Club, "My Year of Flops". Of three categories (failure, fiasco, or secret success), he labeled All the King's Men as a failure and said of the film: "Zaillian’s dud manages the formidable feat of being at once histrionic and agonizingly dull, hysterically over-the-top yet strangely lifeless."
Zaillian was stunned by the poor critical and box-office results of this film, which opened with only $3.8 million and barely made $7.2 million at the end of its run in US theaters. Another new wide release from the same weekend, Jackass Number Two, made $28.1 million. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Zaillian said that the film's poor performance was "like getting hit by a truck. ... I don't know what to make of it.... We're all a bit shellshocked. I feel like Huey Long must have felt -- you try to do good and they shoot you for it."
The film's score was composed by James Horner, who had previously worked with Zallian on Searching For Bobby Fischer.Main Title - 4:30
Time Brings All Things to Light - 1:45
Give Me the Hammer and I'll NAIL 'EM UP! - 5:59
Bring Down the Lion and the Rest of the Jungle Will Quake in Fear - 3:34
Conjuring the 'Hick' Vote - 3:14
Anne's Memories - 2:47
Adam's World - 3:43
Jack's Childhood - 2:22
The Rise to Power - 3:17
Love's Betrayal - 2:54
Only Faded Pictures - 2:49
As We Were Children Once - 2:49
Verdict and Punishment - 6:00
All Our Lives Collilde - 3:23
Time Brings All Things to Light... I Trust It So - 7:36