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Sean Penn plugs festival film, rails against Bush administration

TORONTO (CP) _ Actor Sean Penn wasted little time unleashing his volatile political views upon a Toronto International Film Festival news conference Sunday, calling U.S. President George W. Bush "a Beelzebub _ and a dumb one."

Sporting a moustache and a severe expression and lighting up a cigarette that no one dared say wasn’t allowed, Penn was part of a panel promoting "All the King’s Men," a story of a well-meaning politician who is eventually corrupted by power and money.

"One could make the argument that George Bush is a good politician," he said sarcastically. "I think the issue is how you define politician. Once upon a time, politics was the organization of things to benefit the people."

When asked by a reporter _ who apparently missed the irony in the actor’s words _ to explain his describing Bush as a good politician, Penn said the definition has changed, just like the definition of good actor is now "contest winner."

"So that’s the level of politician I think he’s good at. So out of context, he’s Beelzebub _ and a dumb one."

Penn has been an outspoken critic of Bush and the war on terror, writing an open letter to the president in 2002 and even making a high-profile visit to Iraq for which he incurred accusations that he was unpatriotic.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, "All the King’s Men" presents Penn as 1950s-era Louisiana governor Willie Stark, a fictionalized version of onetime real-life governor Huey P. Long. A 1949 film version won Academy Awards for best picture and best actor for Broderick Crawford in the Stark role. Some are already pointing to Penn as deserving of at least an Oscar nomination for his visceral performance as a good man drawn into an orbit of evil. The film is making its world premiere at the Toronto festival.

Although a period piece, "All the King’s Men" prompted Penn’s fellow cast members at the news conference to also draw parallels to American political realities today. In the script, a corrupt state administration comes under fire when a shoddily built school collapses, killing some children. Co-star Mark Ruffalo noted that the film is to be screened soon in New Orleans where "there seemed to be some negligence."

"Not some," interjected Patricia Clarkson, who was born and raised in New Orleans.

"There has been negligence, huge negligence," Ruffalo corrected himself. "It’s one of the great things that we can be ashamed of as a country, I think."

At one point, Penn lectured the press photographers, saying he couldn’t hear a reporter’s question because of the clacking of their shutters. The question was: Could he name a good politician? Penn said he wasn’t about to "rattle off the cliches."

"It should be obvious, those people who sacrificed of their talents and their commitment to their country or their people . . . we know who they are and they’re not currently in the White House."

Also on hand was one of the film’s producers, James Carville, former Clinton administration strategist turned political commentator. In his southern drawl, Carville said all politicians start out trying to do the right thing and that even Stark, while not perfect, does build bridges and provides school textbooks.

But he said "people make compromises" _ and not just in politics, but in everyday life, even in filmmaking.

Director and screenwriter Steven Zaillian defended the despair that dominates the film, insisting that in the end, "the good part of (the characters) is not something that gets totally destroyed." And Penn insisted that while the film is a tragedy it does offer the possibility of change.

"The movie leaves it to people to reprise that hope."

Asked why Hollywood doesn’t produce more political films, Zaillian predicted more would be coming.

"In troubled times you get the best films, and God knows we’re in troubled times now."