COMMUNISTS CALLED HIM a fascist, and fascists thought him a Communist, but to his constituents, Huey Long was "The Kingfish," populist spokesman for the angry and dispossessed.
Easily the most flamboyant American politician to come down the pike, Louisiana's governor-turned-senator is deftly captured in Ken Burns' 90-minute documentary "Huey Long."
Burns weaves an exciting and important portrait of an era in America and its politics by using rare newsreel clips and newly filmed interviews with such notables as author Robert Penn Warren, Mrs. Hodding Carter, I.F. Stone, Senator Jennings Randolph and, of course, Long's son, Senator Russell Long.
Burns is clearly comfortable with the documentary style. His "Brooklyn Bridge" was nominated for an Academy Award in 1981 and just Wednesday he was nominated for "Statue of Liberty." Here in "Huey Long" he demonstrates his touch again, presenting an even- handed mix of folks who loved the self-proclaimed "Kingfish" and those who loathed him.
To the poor, he was "the greatest man in the whole world," giving them hope and opportunity through the roads, bridges, free school books, night schools and hospitals of his "Every Man a King" campaign. But to his wealthy foes, fearful of his share-the-wealth platform, Long was "the dictator of Louisiana, the enigma who is making many people regret that the United States ever purchased Louisiana."
This is the bittersweet legacy of a self-made man from impoverished Winn Parish who, after only one year at Tulane Law School in 1914, managed to persuade the examining committee to give him his own private bar exam, which he passed with ease. That was the beginning of a career built on twisting the rules and using the law to do the impossible.
John Dos Passos once wrote "he slept little, drank heavily and ate off other people's plates." But, as we see here, Long's speeches were as intoxicating as his drink as he crisscrossed the muddy bayou state in his shiny new Ford, attracting huge crowds as he drummed up support for his favorite causes while tweaking the nose of big business.
He dreamt of becoming president and even wrote a book, "My First Days in the White House," but by September 1935, Long had nearly as many enemies as he had friends. And as he had always feared, he was gunned down, in the hallway of the State House that he had built. He died two days later, at age 42, but not before he heard the coroner's report that his bodyguards had pumped 59 bullets into his assassin.
HUEY LONG (Unrated) -- At the Key Theater.