Sunday, December 19, 2010

Absolute Power

Clint Eastwood stars in and directs Absolute Power (1997), a reasonably entertaining thriller that's well acted, well directed, and certainly exciting, but given the subject matter, it's not provocative enough. While entertaining, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Consummate thief Luther Whitney (Eastwood) breaks into a mansion and proceeds to rob the place when a drunk couple stumbles into the bedroom. Whitney ducks into a hidden room behind a two-way mirror and watches as their kinky behavior becomes violent. The man starts roughing the woman up, and when she fights back, he screams for help, and two men storm in and shoot her. Turns out, that man is the President of the United States, Allen Richmond (Gene Hackman).

That's just the first 20 minutes or so. We're introduced to a whole crowd of conflicting parties: the President's chief of staff executing a cover up (Judy Davis), the elderly billionaire who helped Richmond become president and husband of the dead woman (E.G. Marshall), Whitney's estranged daughter (Laura Linney), a sympathetic detective (Ed Harris), a remorseful secret service agent (Scot Glenn), and another agent whose loyalty never falters (Dennis Haysbert).

To Eastwood's credit, this cast of characters never falters or becomes hard to follow. All the parts are well cast. Everyone is recognizable and easy to follow, so you're never asking yourself who's who. Plus, each character has his or her own angle on the events that went down, and it's fun to match them up as the viewer, figuring out what they know and don't know. There are some characters who are forgotten about for long stretches, and some, like the hit man Marshall's billionaire hires, hardly factor in at all once their initial scenes are over.

Unfortunately, as skillfully made as Absolute Power, I think it missed something of an opportunity. Instead of making a movie about the president involved in a scandalous murder and cover up, we get a cat-and-mouse thriller that just happens to involve the president.

Hackman is good in an all-too-small role as the hypocritical sleazebag who embraces at a press conference the man whose wife's death he caused. But very little is made of the fact he's president. There are hints of scandal, and there's the obvious cover-up. I'd like to seem more of him. We never meet his wife or learn about his presidency. Is he a family values conservative or a man-of-the-people liberal? How has he managed to conceal his private habits from public view for so long? That's never developed; he's just the bad guy.

There are tense moments: the initial break-in, a meeting between Eastwood and Linney as police and others plan an ambush, and an effort on someone's life in a hospital. Even the dialogue heavy scenes, such as Harris and Eastwood's meeting in the museum, work well because they're laced with delicious irony, and some characters, especially Marshall's, are more complex than expected.

Absolute Power is an enjoyable thriller. There's plenty of suspense and thrills, but I'm somewhat disappointed. I'd have liked to see the subject matter explored as more than just a backdrop. Still, it's worth checking out.

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