Absolute Power (1997)

*. Clint Eastwood has a long and well deserved reputation for bringing his productions in on time and on budget (the two being very closely related). Even given his own professional standards, however, I was surprised to hear that Absolute Power was completed more than three weeks ahead of schedule. Three weeks! That’s incredible.
*. Unfortunately, the downside of such a streamlined production can be a mechanical film. This is certainly the feeling I got from Absolute Power. Part of that may be due to the story itself. Based on a David Baldacci novel and adapted by William Goldman, it’s a pure piece of genre hack work. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to take its own basic premise seriously, giving us a cartoonishly evil president and a comically bumbling chief of staff (Gene Hackman and Judy Davis, respectively, both utterly wasted in their parts).
*. That we can’t believe anything so improbable isn’t the problem though. Or that it steadily becomes more improbable as the story goes along. In a pinch I suppose we could all shrug at the idea of the president’s secret service consisting of exactly two people, the same two people, on duty all the time. Harder to abide are the formulaic plot elements and their mechanical handling.
*. I’ll mention three such points in the story, in order. The film begins with Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood), a break-and-enter art thief, sneaking into a mansion and its secret vault room. A vault room with a one-way mirror that lets him see out of it. Once in there he witnesses the rape and murder of a woman by the president of the United States. Watching this scene play out, and it takes a very long time, I thought of Hitchcock. Not because it was done in the manner of Hitchcock but because it took a Hitchcockian idea, with an innocent man being drawn into a crime through an act of voyeurism (one might also think of the scene in Blue Velvet where Kyle MacLachlan watches Isabella Rossellini being raped).
*. But thinking of Hitchcock just underlines how pedestrian and unsuspenseful this scene is. Absolutely nothing interesting is done with it, and the viewer’s only sympathy with Luther is that we are, with him, being made to just sit through a necessary bit of action in order to set the plot in motion. The idea itself isn’t new or interesting, but just the opposite, and it’s presented in a dull, unremarkable way.
*. The other two scenes are much the same. The first has a pair of snipers setting up to assassinate Luther out on the street in broad daylight during a police stakeout. Improbable? Yes. Formulaic? Yes. How many times have we seen these professional killers assembling their high-powered rifles, followed by views through the scopes with their prospective victims in the crosshairs, only to be undone at the last moment by some flaky accident? I don’t see how the fact that there are two killers working independently here changes very much, and again there is nothing creative done with the presentation.
*. Finally I’ll just mention the attempted murder of Luther’s daughter in the hospital. Again we have the conjunction of formula with improbability. I even found myself wondering how easy it really is to walk around a hospital unnoticed, going anywhere you want unquestioned, just by donning a white coat. Can anyone do this? At any hospital? Because it seems to happen a lot.
*. I think it’s the combination of scenes like this that allowed Eastwood to complete filming so quickly, but which also left critics and audiences cold. This is a movie that never ignites, and it wasn’t long before I started to feel as impatient as Eastwood must have been for it to end.

3 thoughts on “Absolute Power (1997)

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