Matching a director as sombre in tone as Clint Eastwood with a high-concept thriller about a President who kills the wife of his biggest financial banker, then is pursued by the cat burglar who witnessed his crime, might seem like an uneasy union.
But Eastwood not only made the relationship work in 1997’s Absolute Power. He also mastered the art of popcorn frivolity.
Next to Eastwood’s weightier tomes, both behind and in front of the camera, Absolute Power is a purely frivolous entertainment. But that’s certainly not a negative when the frivolity is just so damn entertaining.
This is no complex morality play like Unforgiven (1992). Nor is it an examination of hero worship and war the way The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006) were.
But even in a suspenseful romp with more than a few Hitchcock-esque traits, all the familiar Eastwood themes are still present.
There’s the battle pitting one man against the establishment. In this case, the one man is ageing jewel thief Luther Whitney, played by Eastwood himself. His enemy is the United States government that counts slimy misogynist President Allen Richmond, played by a particularly spiteful Gene Hackman, as its head.
The idea of one person taking on the malevolent machines of power is classic Eastwood. His laconic, yet brutal loners in High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985) did the same. One man fighting trying to outrun overwhelming forces is also a key element of the more frivolous thrillers brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock, such as North by Northwest (1959) and Saboteur (1942).
One trope essential to all Eastwood films is the subversion of character expectations. In the world seen through the lens of Eastwood’s camera, villains masquerade as the righteous, while honourable persons are found among society’s dregs.
It’s easy to see Hackman’s president as one more version of Sheriff Little Bill, the sadist purveyor of rough justice in Unforgiven. Similarly, Eastwood’s ultimately humane yet tough-minded thief might be any one of the anti-heroes he’s played before.
In Absolute Power, Eastwood creates a noir-style world where social norms are juxtaposed. Everyone in society’s so-called elite bracket is dishonest, seedy and corrupt in some way.
Richmond’s suave politico speak wins him elections but also masks the sex-crazed, bully within. Even Walter Sullivan, the octogenarian billionaire Hackman’s president cuckolds then widows, is not what he seems.
Expertly played by a cagey E.G. Marshall, Sullivan is not at all the doddering, grief-stricken philanthropist he first portrays. He’s also equally capable of murder, a believer in Old Testament justice, who wouldn’t shrink from hiding a callous act behind crocodile tears. As he lasciviously quips in one memorable scene: “Selling sin is easy.”
It’s in society’s lower echelons where goodness lies in Eastwood’s world. It lies in Whitney, the Korea War hero-turned master thief who just can’t let a corrupt president get away with murder. It lies in Ed Harris’ world-weary detective Seth Frank, whose mock cynicism hides a noble commitment to the truth.
The truth is elusive to Frank the same way is it to Luther. It’s only a plaything for society’s upper echelons, the politicians and money men to spin and decide for the masses. Their truths are believed, but everyone else needs action to back their words. Nobody would believe a thief’s word, but everybody takes the President’s for granted.
The same theme was central to the plight of Angelina Jolie’s central character in Eastwood’s underrated Changeling (2008).
Eastwood houses Absolute Power within a world full of sleazy, sinister types who seem to have sprouted right out of the pages of a dog-eared pulp novella. Particular odious highlights include Richard Jenkins as a nonchalant paid assassin with a taste for the finer things in life. There’s no feeling behind his arrogant boast to Sullivan: “Mine is not particularly creative work and I only do it because I enjoy living beyond my means.”
Then there are the two secret service agents, watchdogs during their President’s nightly forays into lust and violence. As the conscience-addled Bill Burton, Scott Bakula is suitably credible. His sense of duty and morality have become so intertwined they’re now twisted beyond all recognition.
Burton’s partner in crime (literally), Tim Collin, is brought to life ably by Dennis Haysbert as a statuesque sociopath who gleefully justifies any horrible act that protects his president.
Burton and Collin could have been mere B-movie-standard henchman were it not for Bakula and Haysbert’s equally memorable turns.
Finally, completing the list of the standard Eastwood directorial staples is the customary estranged father and daughter relationship. Kate Whitney (Laura Linney) is the child who just can’t forgive Luther for being in prison when she was younger.
The uneasy bond between a father and daughter is plastered all over the Eastwood film canon. It was most obvious in Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Trouble With the Curve (2012). For one of the director’s favourite themes, it’s ironic then that Absolute Power is at its weakest whenever Luther and Kate are on screen together.
The idea of a parent and child working toward an understanding and eventual reunion feels out of place in a world otherwise defined by injustice and cruel contradictions. Instead, this part of the plot functions much better through expressions of longing.
When Kate sees the almost shrine-like collection of pictures Luther keeps as a flimsy way to stay close to his daughter, she longs to know this side of the father she’s rejected. Similarly, when Luther “visits” his daughter’s apartment in her absence, he longs to be part of her life(if only to tell her to tidy the place up and restock the fridge).
In a visual sense, there are some real flourishes from the stalwart actor also ducking behind the camera. One such striking shot involves a drawing of the Sullivan mansion Luther plans to rob, etched by the thief, which morphs from the page of his sketchpad to a live shot and the start of his night heist.
After the adulterous Christy Sullivan (Melora Hardin) has been gunned down and Richmond’s secret service cronies and chief of staff Gloria Russell – a barely below hysterical Judy Davis – clean the murder scene, the passage of time is shown via the fade of a bedside clock.
At the same time, Luther has been witnessing everything, near-rape, murder, cleanup and all, behind a two-way mirror that not only disguises a vault full of gems and dollar bills, but also houses the chair old man Sullivan sat on to watch his wife entertain willing lovers.
During these scenes, Luther’s eyes become the camera. His frightened glances signpost everything. Whenever Eastwood turns the lens onto the murder room, his pacing is deliberate and calculating. The camera freezes on a dropped letter opener used by Sullivan’s wife to try and fight off then kill a frenzied Richmond, vital evidence which could eventually lead to the president’s downfall.
These exact and meticulous shots are pure visual storytelling. So are two scenes that bracket the murder.
First, there’s Luther breaking into Sullivan’s mansion. It’s a wonderfully wordless and voyeuristic glimpse through the thief’s eyes.
Later, a sniper’s ambush in a daytime plaza where the police, secret service and Sullivan’s hired gun hope to converge on Luther, serves as the film’s signature set piece.
Eastwood doesn’t need explanatory monologues from panicked characters to advance the story here, he simply lets the viewers use their eyes. This age-old technique, brilliant in its simplicity, is the foundation of quality on-screen thrillers.
That’s just what Absolute Power is. The performances are played to the hilt, something which, for the most part, produces excellent results (see Hackman, Haysbert, Bakula, Harris and Marshall).
For those Eastwood fans who can’t help but pine for the cool menace of Harry Callahan or the nameless spectre of vengeance from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, Luther delivers two unforgettable lines.
The first occurs when he sees Richmond offer up phoney sympathy while draping his arm around the man who’s wife he had killed. Luther’s typically gravel-voiced, affronted response is: “You heartless whore! I’m not about to run from you.”
Later after an attempt on his daughter’s life, Luther lets one arm of the White House machine know it won’t stand: “Well, he made a mistake. You made a mistake. When you went after my little girl, that was entirely unacceptable.”
That kind of shoe-leather tough dialogue is also mixed with a superb exchange of verbal jousting between Whitney and Frank.
The noir-like deadpan utterances of many of the principle characters is a testament to William Goldman’s mischievous script.
Anyone viewing Eastwood’s name on the credits as an automatic guarantee of a thematically deep and subtle film, should look elsewhere. Absolute Power is a frivolous offering compared to most pictures in the actor and director’s more hefty output.
But as pure escapism goes, this is as high class as it gets.