A poor man from a rural area defies the old-boy network political machinery of the state of Louisiana and becomes governor of the state based on the populist vote of those who are disenfranchised. Sean Penn plays the lead character of Willie Stark. Stark lives in a small town in Louisiana. He is the county treasurer, having been elected to the position by the local voters. His wife Lucy (played by Talia Balsam) is a local school teacher. Stark goes up against the corrupt local politicians on the school board who vote for a padded construction bid to build a new school so they can line their pockets with bribe money. He tries his best to show the local townspeople exactly what is going on, but the accounting and the numbers and all the things which keep progress from being made completely thwart his efforts. A cynical reporter named Jack Burden (played by Jude law) comes to the town to see if there is a story to be written. He meets Willie Stark, notes his sincerity, but is too cynical to believe anyone has any chance to change the system.
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The school is built by the contractor whose bid is much higher than the other very qualified companies. There is a fire and when the children use the fire escape on the side of the brick building, the fire escape fails, causing the death of three local children. It is very clear, Willie Stark warned everybody as loudly as he could about the corruption, and now children have died because of it.
Willie Stark is visited by a city slicker in a fine car, named Tiny Duffy (played by James Gandolfini). There is nothing “tiny” about this man. Duffy tries to corrupt Stark with liquor, but Stark refuses. Nevertheless, when Duffy speaks about Stark being the man who has a chance to win the governorship of the state of Louisiana based on the public's reaction to the death of school children, Duffy's seduction works perfectly well to get Stark to join the political race for governor of the state. Stark believes fully in what he is doing. Jack Burden, the journalist, is assigned to cover the story and Sadie Burke (played by Patricia Clarkson) is brought on board to manage the public relations campaign. Burden is so cynical and he finds it impossible to believe in Stark, while at the same time he is surprised at Stark's naivety. He confronts Stark with the truth that Stark is simply being used to split the populist vote in half so the incumbent governor will easily win again. Stark has a major wake-up call from this. He realizes he has been used as puppet and to everyone's surprise he changes his tactics in mid-campaign, publicly calling Duffy a corrupt city guy and laughing when Duffy falls in to the pig slop on one of the programmed speeches, Stark is giving. Stark throws the programmed speech away and with a great deal of passion speaks directly to the poor people in a way they never heard before.
From minimal attendance at his public events, to sold-out capacity, Stark's rise in popularity so fast he wins the office of the Governor by a landslide. He does not stop there. He takes on the political machine of the most powerful businessmen in the state, especially the oil interests and he forces a massive political reform which includes building roads, bridges, and schools. His popularity soars, but his enemies also grow stronger. He convinces Jack Burden to come to work for him and to do the “nice-talking” he needs done. As his power increases, Stark becomes very pragmatic about it and loses his earlier ideals. He cheats on his wife and he even cheats on his mistress. But he still gets the work projects done, which he set out to accomplish.
Willie Stark's enemies try to impeach him. Even Burden's surrogate father, Judge Irwin (played by Anthony Hopkins) who raised Burden from childhood when his father was missing, comes out publicly against Willie Stark. Stark insists Burden find some true dirt on Judge Irwin to discredit him. Burden works very hard to find something, but the judge's reputation is impeccable until he goes back many years to discover Judge Irwin was corrupt in the very earliest part of his career. When the news is released, the judge commits suicide from the shame of having his long-ago tarnished past revealed. Jack is then the one responsible for the death of his surrogate father and he is destroyed by the guilt. Stark also uses Jack's relationship with Adam Stanton (played by Mark Ruffalo) who is the son of the previous great Governor Stanton of Louisiana to get Adam to agree to run a new hospital being built by Willie Stark. The hospital project is a fraud. Willie Stark has become as corrupt as the ones he hated which led Stark to go into politics in the first place. Adam Stanton comes to the hearing where the impeachment is defeated and after Willie Stark gives a big boastful speech, Adam Stanton shoots Stark dead in the Louisiana Capitol building. Adam Stanton is also shot dead by Gov. Stark's bodyguard in the process. Both men die on the floor next to each other as the movie ends.
Best part of story, including ending:
This film is an excellent movie version of the the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Robert Penn Warren. It is very clear the fictional character of Willie Stark is strongly based on the real life Governor of Louisiana named Huey Long.
Best scene in story:
It has very little to do with the advancement of the story, but the scene when Stark first sees his soon-to-be exotic mistress doing a flamingo-inspired dance number on ice skates, as a performance in a gentleman's club, is super hot.
Opinion about the main character:
The main character Willie Stark does what any man would do, he follows the courage of his convictions, he rises to power, power corrupts him, and he dies, but he gets all the hot women along the way.