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Absolute Power


Patently ridiculous presidential corruption tale, yet kind-of-irresistible, owing to its fantasy-land trappings. Entertain, if you will, the possibility of a POTUS involved in murder who doesn’t have it buried for all time by a mere handful of staff aware of what has happened – no hidden controllers or Deep State puppeteering this White House – and who can be brought down by an average-joe cat burglar. And all this made during the Clinton era! Anyone would think, for all its incrimination of the highest office in the land, it was a piece of propaganda. Whitewashing of the White House. As opposed to white watering.

Russell: And you heard no sounds of violence till then?
Burton: Nothing we haven’t heard before.

Hollywood doesn’t tend to do evil Presidents. Thoroughly decent ones – even action-hero ones in the same year’s Air Force One – are more common, blissfully unaware of corruption among their most-trusted confidantes (more the style of also the same year’s Shadow Conspiracy and Murder at 1600). So for all the justified charges that Absolute Power is silly, its intimation that the President isn’t beyond reproach is rather refreshing. Again, though, as the above quote suggests, anyone on the staff familiar with a POTUS’ aptitude for getting nasty when lusty would have an established routine for dealing with the potential consequences. And no Secret Service men’s first thought would be calling the police after a homicide where the President’s reputation might be tarnished. Bonkers. As to why Chief of Staff Gloria Russell (a typically verging-on-hysteria Judy Davis) was present while the Pres was getting kinky… No, verisimilitude is not high on the list of Absolute Power’s priorities.

What you really require from such material is no opportunity to sift through the illogicalities, while being regularly outmanoeuvred by the telling. Another Hackman-starring, murder-and-indiscretion (this time as Secretary of Defence) thriller No Way Out is head-and-shoulders above this one in that regard. Absolute Power would have been ideal Brian De Palma fodder, with at least two prime set-piece dazzlers from which he could make hay (the opening, thirty-minute robbery/murder/chase and the later surveillance meet between Clint’s Luther Whitney and his daughter Kate, played by Laura Linney). There’s also a bizarre/compelling ballroom sequence in which batshit-crazy Gloria, believing Richmond has gifted her a necklace – actually one of Christy’s sent by Luther – receives the shock of her life as the President sets her straight, all the while with both required to make a show of things for their fellow attendees.

But Clint’s meat-and-potatoes directorial approach doesn’t prevent him from delivering the necessaries. As noted, the opening sequence is a highlight (and, if it’s half an hour before there’s relief there, it’s 45 minutes before Hackman is revealed as President. Obviously, though, few going into the movie wouldn’t have had that part spoiled for them). It was also Clint who set a struggling William Goldman straight on how to adapt David Baldacci’s 1996 novel. 

Goldman observed, in Which Lie Did I Tell?, that Absolute Power’s was “the hardest screenplay I have ever written. Eventually, it stopped me cold…” On reading the novel, he was presented with a glut of characters; they swamped him. Luther was the best, but halfway through, he is shock-murdered by Secret Service Agent Collin (future 24 POTUS Dennis Haybert). Goldman had no choice but to focus on Ed Harris’ investigating detective Seth Frank (so the initial screenplay ended with Frank coming to the White House to arrest the President). Eastwood came aboard and wanted Luther to bring down the President, but rather than eliciting an “Of course!”, this seemed to throw Goldman. How to deliver such a thing? 

Tony Gilroy saved Bill’s bacon, suggesting Luther goes to see his daughter following the opening robbery (Goldman was so fixated on the novel’s rules that they were estranged, meaning that, in his conception, this simply wouldn’t happen): “I don’t think I can ever explain how freeing that scene was for me”. Gilroy also suggested the safe house and that wronged husband Sullivan (EG Marshall) should take the President’s life at the end. Elsewhere, Jack Graham (attorney) should be banished from the proceedings. 

Such honing is fine; Eastwood also suggested Kate be imperilled, such that Clint now gets to glower at Collin coming for his little girl and he gets the shock demise. The implication of the final scene is that Sullivan stabbed Richmond with the murder weapon Whitney took from the scene, but reporter questions like “But why would he stab himself?” should have been reframed as “Do you have any inkling just how unlikely it is for a suicide to stab themselves?” The last scene, even given that it’s reported rather than shown, can’t escape the plain silly for me. A President’s demise would surely only occur in this way would if his masters determined it was in their interests for him to bow out (dis)gracefully. 

Goldman offered several approving anecdotes of the Clint process, such as casting Hackman (“I like working with actors who don’t have anything to prove”, Eastwood told his screenwriter). Perhaps most emphatically, “Being around the atmosphere he creates, I actually felt good about being in the picture business”. The screenwriter wasn’t blind to the movie’s faults, however, averring that “Absolute Power is not a great movie. But for me it was a great experience”.

Clint, of course, has thrown his hat in the political ring at various points, as mayor of Carmel and talking to a Republican chair. He’s a White Hat too, probably even less popular in Hollywood than being a Republican. Absolute Power came after a string of second-wind (or should that be third?) hits encompassing Unforgiven, In the Line of Fire, A Perfect World (internationally mainly) and The Bridges of Madison County. It was much less so (albeit, we don’t have international figures), but it was the result of rights bidding war (a tidy $5m) and had the kind of cast (Hackman, Harris, Scott Glenn) that suggested great things. There’s the odd duff note on that front – Richard Jenkins is the least likely assassin ever, but he’s only in about two scenes – but most of those here do what they’re supposed to, even when the results are nails on blackboard (“Know this; every time I see your face, I want to rip your throat out” Glenn’s Secret Service man Burton tells Gloria; Davis duly delivers a performance pitched to such a response).

While the aging-burglar riff would find greater box-office reward a couple of years later (Entrapment), it’s more the master-of-disguise aspect of Luther that fails to convince. When Kate tells the police “I’m saying you won’t recognise him. He could be right around the corner” in deference to her father’s skills in this department, and the evidence of this largely comprises Clint looking very Clint in an array of hats and optional raincoat, it brings to mind the Indiana Jones inflating the abilities of Denholm Elliot’s (now, in this movie) inept Marcus Brody in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (“Brody’s got friends in every town and village from here to the Sudan, he speaks a dozen languages, knows every local custom, he’ll blend in, disappear, you’ll never see him again”: cut to Brody completely at a loss and making a very visible hash of things). The chief problem with the café set piece is that there should have been no hesitation on the assassins’ part as to who that was chatting with Kate. Still, it yields the even-back-in-1997 dubious line “Maybe that’s him, disguised as a Chinaman”.

One thing Absolute Power doesn’t skirt over, and perhaps a reason to justify his demise in the novel, is Luther admitting of the opening murder: “I might not even have been able to save Christy Sullivan, but I didn’t even try”. Such moral ambiguity, more than anything, would have made this perfect De Palma fodder. Mainly, though, the movie’s claim to glory is much as Geoff Andrew suggested in his Time Out review: “… it’s hard to take against a contemporary Hollywood movie which forefronts a cowardly, cynical, philandering president”.

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