Absolute Power (1997)

D: Clint Eastwood
S: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris

Despite a stellar cast, meticulous direction and a generally serious approach to its subject, Absolute Power is a lifeless film from the bestselling novel by David Baldachi. It concerns the dilemma faced by aging cat burglar Clint Eastwood when he accidentally witnesses the murder of a young woman in which President of the United States Gene Hackman is involved. Though his first impulse is to run for cover, he feels compelled to expose the hypocrisy of the holder of the highest office in the land after watching him make a speech on the subject of bringing the killer to justice, something he evidently has no intention of doing. He finds himself the subject of a manhunt involving the secret service (who know he saw everything), Washington homicide detective Ed Harris (who wants to bring him in alive), and a hit man hired by the dead woman's husband. Meanwhile things are complicated by his relationship with daughter Laura Linney, which has come under even greater stress than usual (she resents him for making her childhood difficult as the daughter of a con) because of the rumour spread by the secret service that Eastwood himself might be the killer.

The elements of a good thriller are there, and Eastwood's craftsmanship and experience as a director is evident in the way he handles the physical action in the film. There is comparatively little dialogue in the first half hour, and he is clearly comfortable using silence and camera movement to advance the story. But the bulk of the drama in the film is internal and psychological, and few enough directors could have overcome this basic challenge, even with a screenplay written by William Goldman. Add to this that Eastwood has miscast himself in the lead (he's too old for the part and only occasionally convinces), and an all too convenient and personalised resolution, and the problems become more serious.

Though the basic plot concerns events of national importance, there is no sense of that scale. The world of the film is so intensely personal that there is no feeling for society on the whole, or of the implications of political corruption for America itself. Hackman's character seems altogether too evil to be realistic. He exudes low-key hostility throughout typical of many of the actor's recent characterisations. Without any scenes of his relationship with the public or even moments of sleazy charm, there is no evidence of how or why he got to be the President in the first place.

The result is that firstly that you can't believe the scenario itself, and secondly that the film never actually addresses the issues it seems intended to problematise. Instead of a meditation on power and corruption, it is a story of father/daughter reconciliation. The political and moral crisis which should engulf the nation (but doesn't) becomes merely the medium through which Linney learns to accept and love her estranged father. Thus the dramatic stakes are upped through the use of what would seem an outrageous and explosive premise. This seems at best unnecessary and at worst exploitative.

Of course from Eastwood's point of view, the story of paternal anxiety might well have had more personal resonance, and thus students of his work might well get more from it than casual viewers. No one would deny the director the right to deal with subject which interest him. But it seems excessive to shift the focus of a thriller so much away from the thrills that it eventually provides none at all.

In the final analysis, the film is well enough crafted to hold attention. But one comes away from it with the feeling that nothing very much has happened, which can't be right. Even Murder at 1600 managed to create a sense of dramatic confrontation (maybe a tad too dramatic, but that's another story) suitable given the evocation of the office of the Presidency for the purpose. Absolute Power is finally even less interesting as a study of the Presidency than Air Force One, which cannot but rate as a disappointment for fans of the director, the screenwriter or the novel.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.