Absolute Power (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In 1997 movies, the White House is under siege, although not as literally as in last year's Independence Day. No less than three major motion pictures released between New Year's Day and the twilight of the summer season have stories that postulate high level government cover-ups. The first, Shadow Conspiracy, was a terrible film that vanished from theaters almost as soon as it opened. The third, Murder at 1600, is slated for a warm weather bow, and will feature Wesley Snipes as a police officer investigating a homicide on the grounds of the White House. In between these two pictures comes Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power, a fairly routine thriller that gets high marks as a result of tight pacing and top-notch acting.

In 1993's In the Line of Fire, Eastwood played a Secret Service agent. Here, he's hunted by a pair of them. Frankly, the actor seems equally comfortable on either side of the badge, just as he does on either side of the camera. Unlike Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County, there's nothing remarkable about this motion picture; Absolute Power is a straightforward thriller that, while entertaining, will not go down as an example of Eastwood's best work.

Luther Whitney (Eastwood) is a master thief; he's one of only six people who can defeat the Sullivan mansion's alarm system. Once inside, he makes his way into the bedroom, finds the hidden vault, and proceeds to fill his bag with cash and jewelry. But this isn't Luther's night. Just as he's finishing up the robbery, the lady of the house (Melora Hardin) arrives home with a gentleman guest. Luther is forced to hide in the vault, behind a one-way mirror. What he sees next not only shocks him, but makes him the target of a hit man, the Secret Service, and the Washington D.C. police. Christy Sullivan's inebriated escort is none other than Alan J. Richmond (Gene Hackman), the President of the United States. And, after some rough foreplay, she's dead and a cover-up is underway. Luther witnesses all this from his hiding place, but it's not long before the detective leading the murder investigation, Seth Frank (Ed Harris), realizes that the aging thief was in the house when the crime occurred. But was he a witness or a participant?

Absolute Power, adapted by veteran screenwriter William Goldman from the novel by David Baldacci, is an intriguing story told in an effective manner. It's entertaining for the most part, sporadically clever, and occasionally gripping, but thoughtful viewers will easily recognize a number of sizable plot holes. This is one movie that looks better while you're watching it than when you reflect upon it afterwards. Ultimately, the reason to see Absolute Power is for the pleasure of the cat-and-mouse game between Luther and everyone who's out to get him. The end isn't the fun part; getting there is. At the appropriate moments, Eastwood ratchets up the level of tension to keep us involved.

The "A-list" cast for Absolute Power says a great deal for the prestige of the project and Eastwood's reputation. The director plays Luther as a sage, somewhat laid back character -- more like Bridges' protagonist than Dirty Harry. Hackman, who last worked with Eastwood on Unforgiven, is effectively amoral as the president (some viewers may be reminded of the actor's previous cover-up/conspiracy thriller, No Way Out, where Hackman's Secretary of State accidentally killed his mistress). Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives) plays Gloria Russell, Richmond's Chief of Staff and the author of the cover-up. Scott Glenn (Silverado) and Dennis Haysbert (Love Field) are the Secret Service agents involved in the plot. Laura Linney (Primal Fear) is Luther's estranged daughter, whose uncertain relationship with her father leads to the film's most emotionally honest moments. E.G. Marshall is the extremely wealthy husband of the dead woman.

In the wrong hands, Absolute Power could have resulted in a splashy, inept film. For, while the material here is inherently better than that of Shadow Conspiracy, it takes strong performances and a sure, steady hand at the helm to lift the production above the level of its uneven script. Eastwood's approach is slow and deliberate; he develops characters and relationships and doesn't rely on cheap gimmicks to generate tension. The favorable result speaks for itself. The final cut of Absolute Power isn't shocking or surprising, but seeing it is worth the commitment of a couple of hours on a cold February night.

Absolute Power (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 1997-02-14
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1