Absolute Power

(Clint Eastwood, USA, 1997)


"Father, what have you done?" This plaintive, tragi-comic query from hard-nosed daughter Kate (Laura Linney) to her suspect dad Luther (Clint Eastwood) condenses much that is going on in this superbly crafted thriller. Luther, has in fact, done nothing especially bad – except to steal a vast stash from the mansion of millionaire Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall) just at the moment when Walter's wife Christy (Melora Hardin) decides to bring home American President Richmond (Gene Hackman) for an illicit tryst.

What Luther has seen, while hidden behind a two-way mirror in that room, has catapulted him into a dangerous and scary intrigue. Very soon, everyone is after him – particularly homicide detective Seth (Ed Harris) and a pair of Secret Service agents (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) taking their orders from the shrill Gloria (Judy Davis). Luther's first response is to don a disguise, acquire a fake passport and run for his life – until the spectacle of the President's evil hypocrisy, glimpsed on a TV set, sends him back on a righteous quest.

This story, with its complications and menace, could easily have been handled in a strident or Gothic fashion. Director Eastwood and veteran screenwriter William Goldman (Misery, 1990) take the brilliant course of giving this material a light, breezy touch, without once sacrificing the high-wire suspense. Memories of Cary Grant in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1955) attach themselves to Eastwood as he plays a smooth, canny trickster negotiating a tricky path between justice and criminality.

The film gains its depth, and its humour, from a superbly sketched father-and-child theme that is never allowed to become mawkish or sentimental. Luther has been mostly absent from Kate's life, although he never stopped loving her; now he barges back into her adult world at a moment of crisis, and they have to work out their relationship in the heat of action. By contrast, Richmond is a bad son – the worst – to his father figure Sullivan, although he publicly proclaims otherwise.

Eastwood's mastery as a director is incomparable. His approach is restrained, classical, always clear and economical – but when the moment comes amidst the calm narrative flow for a killer clinch, gag or frisson, he sure delivers the goods.

Absolute Power is not a flashy, spectacular or subversive film, but it is rock-solid entertainment with an exhilarating command of cinematic storytelling. Such dexterity and control are rare in modern movies.

MORE Eastwood: A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Pale Rider, Mystic River, The Mule

© Adrian Martin August 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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