1990s, 3/4, Clint Eastwood, Review, Thriller

Absolute Power

#15 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.

This is a real change of direction for Eastwood. The Bridges of Madison County following the elegiac A Perfect World felt like a natural progression, but moving from The Bridges of Madison County to a violent, Hitchcockian thriller about corruption at the highest levels of governmental power is a real turn of events. Eastwood adapts the novel by David Baldacci using a script by William Goldman and turns out a well-made and entertaining thrill ride that doesn’t quite have the weight and heft it seems to imply. It’s a fun little ditty from a filmmaker who seemed to be moving in a different direction, a direction that could have potentially raised this story into greatness.

Luther (Eastwood) is a lifelong jewel thief with a taste for fine art who zeroes in on the mansion of the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), left empty for the household’s trip to the Caribbean. He’s surprised in the middle of his dealings when two people drunkenly show up, backing him into the vault with a two-way mirror for a door. The man (Gene Hackman) and woman (Melora Hardin) fool around a bit until the sex starts to get too rough leading to the woman reaching for a letter opener to stab the man who calls for help before two men (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) with guns rush in and shoot the woman dead. Luther has to sit there, witness the whole crime as well as the cleanup led by another woman (Judy Davis) before he can move and try to get out.

Now, aside from the wrong man concept that was pretty core to Hitchcock’s thrillers that gets manifested here when the cleanup involves framing the murder on a burglar without them realizing Luther’s presence at all which does end up putting Luther in the investigative crosshairs, there’s a small moment that recalls some of Hitchcock’s editing techniques to enhance tension. Luther gets out of the vault and heads towards the letter opener that the woman had accidentally left behind. When the men discover the situation, they notice the movement in the window that Luther makes, and a chase is on. What happens is subtle, but the men climb about five sets of stairs to get to the second floor in editing, dragging out the moment just like when Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman were descending the stairs in Notorious. Eastwood’s sedate style is too ingrained in how he makes movies to turn the whole film into a Hitchcock homage, but he does seem to pick and choose what techniques to use when he finds them appropriate.

Luther has ever reason to be scared, of course, and that’s because Gene Hackman is playing President Alan Richmond, the woman who died was Mrs. Sullivan, wife to one of the most powerful private individuals in America, the men with the guns were secret service agents, and the woman doing cleanup was Richmond’s chief of staff. He didn’t just witness a rich man commit murder and get away with it, he watched the single most powerful man on earth do it. He’s going to run, and he says goodbye to his daughter, Kate (Laura Linney), a state prosecutor with whom he is all but estranged because of his time in prison when she was a girl. With a disguise and some fake passports, he’s ready to leave the country completely until he watches Richmond’s press conference with Sullivan filled with fake feeling which sets Luther off with the mission to make Richmond pay.

Obviously born of the burgeoning series of sex scandals around Bill Clinton and in the decades’ long aftermath of the death of the image of the presidency with the Watergate scandal, this is a deeply cynical look at the state of American power that doesn’t really mine that possibility beyond using it as window dressing. Where I think this movie could have been pushed into another level of quality is to extend it and make it into some kind of epic thriller with a closer look at Richmond as a politician. I wouldn’t want the typical, “I need to pass this bill or my legacy is not what I want it,” stuff, but give us Richmond trying to supplant American law and tradition through his official capacity as president, perhaps trying to work with his Attorney General to take down Sullivan for specious reasons. Richmond being a weak-willed man who abuses women and gets his personal security to kill a woman isn’t uniquely tied to the office of the presidency in any real way. I’d like to have seen that tie bound closer.

Without that binding, he’s just a powerful rich guy. In that more limited context, the thriller elements work well, though. There’s a net of investigation that goes from the small circle of secret service agents involved to the local police detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) that steadily gets closer to Luther, mostly through Kate. This gets handled well with the exception of a public meeting scene between father and daughter where two snipers are there to take Luther out, and Luther is only saved by a coincidental flash of light that temporarily blinds one of the snipers. It’s a coincidental thing that never satisfies in moments like that. In the original book, apparently, Luther dies in that scene. It would make more sense if it played out that way.

Anyway, Luther decides that he’s going to get to the president the only way he can: through someone else with his situation becoming more dire, especially after Kate is attacked and put in the hospital. The solution is elegant but relies on someone believing the word of a thief perhaps a bit too much, leading to an interesting conclusion where the good guys end up triumphing over the bad.

I don’t mind this ending. I think it works in a limited, thriller sort of way, but I do think a more pessimistic ending might have worked better. It’s one man against the upper echelons of power. Should he win morally? Probably yes. Should he win narratively? I’m not so sure. This is another reason I wanted Richmond’s part to be expanded to include more of his official capacity, to offer up a deeper look at the extent of corruption that Luther was up against. We get no sense if Richmond is either a good or bad president, an ethical or unethical one in terms of official duties. Can we assume that he’s unethical and bad because of what happens with Mrs. Sullivan? Perhaps, but it’s an assumption and not an actual decision on the part of the creative team. It may be more spelled out in the book, parts that Eastwood insisted on Goldman cutting out to more streamline the narrative. It helps create some clean storytelling for a modest thriller, but I really feel like there was more here to mine.

That being said, it is a solidly entertaining film, along the lines of Play Misty for Me. It has modest goals, and it achieves those modest goals well enough without too much stumbling along the way. Helped by a solid cast anchored by Eastwood in particular, Absolute Power feels more like a quick ditty between more serious projects than something that Eastwood really sunk his teeth into.

Rating: 3/4

3 thoughts on “Absolute Power”

  1. This is part of the ‘Sunset’ Eastwood films for me. He’s still got it, as actor and director, but you can see the trajectory of the light.

    It’s an a-typical film for Clint in a lot of ways, at least as a director. As an actor, it reminds me a bit of the Eiger sanction, in odd ways mixed with Three Days of the Condor….which he wasn’t in, but…it’s more of a feel. This FEELS like a 70’s thriller, to me.

    Baldacci’s novel is less about a protagonist as much as it is an exploration of corruption and debauchery among the elite. A spoiler warning rather than a conspiracy theory, as it turns out.

    I know you’ve criticized Clint for not taking more of an authorial stance in his direction, but in this movie, he did make critical and important changes. For one, the protagonist isn’t killed off halfway though. It’s a very ‘Hollywood’ change but a wise one, I think. We get a much more entertaining movie, if not a deep one, as a result. Which is fine, movies should be entertaining stories rather than a realistic view of the world most times.

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    1. “Sunset Eastwood” is a good way to describe the period. It’s a long period of him making movies about old men or past times.

      I obviously haven’t read the book, but I wonder if the survival of the protagonist is an actual good decision. As you say, it’s more of a Hollywood thing, but the moment itself is so awkward, and I’m not sure what else he’s essential to in the latter half. I wouldn’t demand the death, but I’m just not entirely convinced his survival adds that much other than an opportunity for Clint to keep acting in his own movie, especially since he’s not the one who actually takes revenge (yes, he does convey information, but he’s not the only available vessel for that).

      I dunno. I enjoy it (I’ve actually owned it for a few years), but it feels like something that could have been so much more.

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