Absolute Power (1997)

Clint Eastwood is one of the great American directors. He likes to get inside of material that is cliched, tired, overused, or just bad, and turn it into something solid and entertaining. It's not an easy job, but he manages to do it time and time again. His Firefox, Heartbreak Ridge, and White Hunter, Black Heart are all quiet wonders, taking absolutely absurd stories and applying such bravura filmmaking and understated hip self-consciousness that they murder all reasonable expectations and go for something wholly original.

Absolute Power resembles these films in that the story is just plain silly. An aging jewel thief (I mean, come on) named Luther Whitney is in the midst of robbing a large estate in Washington when he hears someone coming. Hiding back in the vault where he was just grabbing the loot, he finds that he is sitting in front of a two-way mirror. On the other side, a man and a woman, both apparently drunk, first playfully flirt and make out, then start to get rough with each other.

What's most amazing about this set-up is not that the situation is such absurd fun or any kind of building menace, but just Eastwood's use of himself as an actor and an icon to subtly mock the whole enterprise. He keeps giving us little shots of Luther, the thief, with his hat pulled down over his eyes, the lower half of his face stoic or just slightly betraying emotion. It's wonderful to watch, like a ballet all on one man's face, at the same time sending up every grunting lone cowboy Eastwood has ever portrayed, and that's a lot. What's great is that Eastwood can still use that image to its full effect, in Unforgiven or Bridges of Madison County, and then go back and make fun of it here like he did in White Hunter, Black Heart and Heartbreak Ridge. Being able to so successfully move back and forth between the image and the self-parody is really quite a remarkable feat, and it can only be hoped that Eastwood can keep up the act.

Anyway, back to the plot, the man who turns out to have been the drunk behind the mirror in the bedroom scene turns out to be the President of the United States, Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman). When the girl is killed by his Secret Service agents, a cover-up ensues, which Luther immediately involves himself in foiling.

Judy Davis, as the Chief of Staff, has way too much fun with her role. Hackman is pretty stalwart and one-dimensional except for one scene, which makes absolutely no sense to advancing the plot, but is too much fun to be resisted. Davis enters a party at the White House wearing a significant necklace, and she and Hackman do a hilarious dance sequence (to Eastwood's own Power Waltz) that brings up images of the best of Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston from the Addams Family films. The absurdity, the ooh-ing crowd, and Hackman and Davis's expressions make it so over-the-top that you can't help loving it.

Almost the whole movie is like this. Chase scenes are perfunctory and seem like they were worked out on the set. They're languorous and tense at the same time. Luther's dysfunctional relationship with his daughter (Laura Linney of Primal Fear) is almost played for laughs as well. We have this sort of superhero thief who dances in and out of any place he chooses, evading capture and detection, and then the contrast of his trying to relate to his daughter, whom he largely abandoned after his stints in jail. The explanation for why they are able to reconcile is so ridiculous that it's better to leave it to the movie. It works there; it wouldn't work on paper.

Eastwood also keeps including these great shots that have almost no connection to building the story. It's like he's saying, "As long as this shot is here, let's just stick it in." He's having fun, and there's nothing wrong with that. For instance, when Luther first enters his house, Eastwood shows us a lovely shot of all of the porches down the block lining up with Luther's, almost like a mirror within a mirror. Later, Luther is shown drawing a sketch of a house, which then fades into the shot of the actual house. None of these fireworks are necessary, but they add to this odd sort of dark, relaxed enjoyment Eastwood creates throughout the film, like nothing is serious but everything is at the same time.

One thing Absolute Power is not is taut. If you're looking for a no-brainer thrill ride, this ain't it, but the thrills are there and the movie never falters. Eastwood hasn't lost a step as an actor or director.

Links for Absolute Power

Internet Movie Database Entry

Roger Ebert Review


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