Producers Bob Christiansen, Rick Rosenberg and John Goodman hand the latter a plum role assembled from facts and fancies by writer Paul Monash. Director Thomas Schlamme turns the pseudo-bio into a rich, engrossing (if sometimes confusing) telefilm about one of U.S. politics’ genuine phenomena, Huey P. Long of Louisiana (also the basis for 1949’s fictional, multi-Oscar-winning “All the King’s Men”). “Kingfish” again proves his energy and charisma are boundless.
Familiarity with the Kingfish’s career would help, since the telefilm skips so much of the Louisiana political dynamo’s story, skims over major events, and telescopes, changes and creates characters.
But the production and Thomas A. Walsh’s expert design, framed by Alexander Gruszynski’s exquisite camerawork, are stunning, and Goodman’s take on Long is so full-blown that facts don’t much matter. Goodman seizes the essence of the man, his locale and his era and, with wide gestures and confident individualism, suggests why the state’s poor gravitated to him.
Starting with Long’s 1935 assassination, script folds back to earlier days, to the backwoods politico chasing votes with wife Rose (Ann Dowd). On the wave of the popular vote and as champ of the rural poor, he becomes the wheeler-dealer governor, then a senator in Washington. He builds roads and hospitals, hands out free textbooks — and isn’t shy about talking about it.
Long’s idea is to redistribute the wealth, raise the affluent’s taxes, hound Standard Oil, antagonize the rich and its politicians and hand the common man a break. His Share the Wealth plan gets him national attention: He tries outstripping FDR, who doesn’t like it or him.
FDR (Bob Gunton, without FDR’s familiar signet ring and sporting a wedding ring, which FDR never wore) meets with an uncivil Long and an unrecognizable James Farley (Thomas Keller). It’s more of an exclamation point than a scene.
But Goodman, Monash and Schlamme do something indeed stirring: They investigate the inner Long. Goodman charges into the role to convey the magnetism that won over the people, and we witness the political handshake, defiance of the Establishment, the crookedness, the ambition and the dedication to helping the poor (there’s a pip of a seg in which Long woos a farmer and his wife — and stays for breakfast).
Though he doesn’t wear the flamboyant wardrobe, Goodman shows a determined Long who’s good at speechifying, at ordering people around, and at applying muscle. There’s a seg in which Frank Costello (Kirk Baltz) and he talk slot machines in a men’s room; it’s unlikely, but dramatically it works.
Goodman slowly cracks open the political character. It’s a moving moment when , as the camera draws in, the actor shows the essential dark side of Huey Long. If there’s ambiguity about his marriage, about an extramarital affair, it gives the vidpic a boost.
As governor, he shouts at his powerful political enemy Judge Pavy (Richard Bradford), “I am the Constitution!” (The son-in-law of Pavy, whom Long gerrymandered out of power, confronts Long in Baton Rouge that fatal day in 1935 .)
Most serious stretch is the intro of Aileen Dumont, played effectively by Anne Heche. Led on in this version of events by secretary Dumont, Long has himself a road mistress. (TNT refers to Du-mont as “inspired by a real character ,” but doesn’t say who.) Long’s real-life secretary was a male, Earle Christenberry, who doesn’t show up in “Kingfish.”
Long’s neglected wife, Rose, waits with the kids as Long becomes full of himself. Scenes between Dumont and the Kingfish are disarming, but the state ball in which she turns up uninvited in front of Rose foams over with suds.
Patrick Williams has supplied a wonderfully syncopated score for the earlier days and takes good measure of the darker actions. Paul Dixon has embellished Schlamme’s solid direction with imaginative editing. Merrily Murray-Walsh’s costume designs are a plus, and the telefilm oozes style.
No constricted biography, “Kingfish” may confound viewers who demand a representative portrait. But Long isn’t sitting still for a regular picture here; it’s “A Story of Huey P. Long,” and should be so considered, and Goodman hammers the hell out of the role.