You've heard it said many times: "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" (actually said by historian Lord Acton, 1834–1902, as "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely"). Whatever, that's the premise of this 1997 adaptation of David Baldacci's best-selling thriller. Producer, director, and star Clint Eastwood makes what he can of a nifty, though implausible, what-if idea, creating a mystery and a frustration for the viewer. No, not all of it works. Still, enough of it goes sufficiently well to pass a reasonably diverting two hours.
So, what if an aging jewel thief during the course of a robbery accidentally witnessed the attempted rape and the killing of a young woman in a house he was burglarizing? Moreover, what if the man he witnessed commit the attempted rape turned out to be a drunken President of the United States and the people who did the killing were the President's secret service bodyguards! (OK, I told you this was going to be implausible.) Would the thief already be so morally and ethically compromised that he would neither care nor say anything about the incident? Or if he did feel compelled to do something, what would it be? Would authorities take the word of a known thief over that of the President? Could a lone man do anything against the weight and authority of the most-powerful man in the country even he wanted to do something? It's a tricky business, and if you can buy into all of the story line's silly hyperbole, the movie turns into a tension-filled cat-and-mouse story.
Eastwood plays the thief, Luther Whitney, in a performance more casual and laid-back than we usually see even from this taciturn actor. Whitney is a master criminal who did time thirty years earlier and has been free ever since. Imagine his surprise when after breaking into a rich man's house, he finds himself looking through a one-way glass mirror at events unfolding wholly unanticipated by him. But Whitney's cool prevails, and he flees the scene, albeit not unnoticed. The President's secret service agents recognize that someone else was there, watching things, and the President and his chief of staff determine not only to cover up the killing but to find the unknown observer and eliminate him.
It's not just the President's agents who are after Whitney, though; so is an assassin hired by the man whose wife the agents killed. You'd think Whitney would skip the country at this point, since no one knows exactly who he is, but, no, this is Eastwood and this is a thriller. He sticks around partly because of his pride but mostly because of his daughter. When the secret service determine that Whitney was present at the scene of the crime but can't get to him directly, they decide to draw him out by going after his daughter. You can mess with Eastwood in a movie, but you don't mess with his daughter.
The plot unfolds slowly yet with a steady forward momentum. Eastwood generates a fairly high degree of suspense starting with Whitney's first heist, some ominous music helping considerably. (The rest of the score, composed by Lennie Niehaus, sounds typically understated and jazz-inflected, as we have come to expect from an Eastwood film.) In addition, a load of first-rate stars in the supporting cast doesn't hurt, either.
Gene Hackman plays the President, Allen Richard, as a squirrelly, smirking, smarmy snake in the grass. Judy Davis plays his Harpy Chief of Staff, Gloria Russell, a cartoonish character even more unscrupulous and conniving than the President. They agree to hush up the incident and liquidate the unknown observer when they find him. Their accomplices are the President's two personal secret service bodyguards, played by Scott Glenn (as a good man gone bad) and Dennis Haysbert ("You're in good hands"). Ed Harris plays Lt. Seth Frank, the officer investigating the case and the man who first senses that Whitney might have had something to do with at least the burglary end of it. Laura Linney plays Kate Whitney, Luther's estranged daughter, a prosecuting attorney who wants nothing to do with her criminal dad. E.G. Marshall plays Walter Sullivan, the victim's husband, an old billionaire who helped put the President in office, who determines to find out who killed his wife, and who engages an assassin to murder culprit. Finally, Richard Jenkins in an undernourished role plays the hired assassin in deadly, calculated fashion.
That's quite a cast, even if not all of them have much to do. And since I've always thought Ed Harris and Scott Glenn were the same actor, it's nice to see them in the same film together again.
Understand, "Absolute Power" is not really an action flick. It's not even much of a thriller. It's more of a character study above all, with the Eastwood-Linney, father-daughter relationship at its heart. Unfortunately, things get undone in the film with too many coincidences and too pat an ending. It almost seems as though the script should have gone on another half an hour, but the filmmakers needed to end the movie, so they did. Abruptly.
Too bad, because parts of the story play pretty well, with more than enough tension in any number of scenes. It's just hard to suspend one's disbelief long enough to accept much of it. It's passable, but barely.
The Warner video engineers do a pretty good job transferring the film to Blu-ray disc, using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to ensure that at least most of the movie shows up the way it should in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
Colors are quite rich, with beautiful greens and reds, especially, and deep black levels to set them off. However, the colors are often quite dark, too, and perhaps too intense for ultimate realism. Definition is fine, with our being able to see every line and wrinkle in Eastwood's, Glenn's, and Hackman's faces. The picture shows up brightly enough, even though some indoor shots get a tad murky, and a bit of natural film grain gives the whole image a well-textured quality.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very subtle and subdued, with little that stands out that isn't there for a constructive purpose. You'll hear a wide front-channel stereo spread, a solid bass, a well-balanced midrange, and suitable dynamics. You won't hear a lot of activity in the surrounds, however, but what there is--traffic and crowd noises, wind, leaves, musical bloom--imparts an appropriate atmosphere to the story.
For reasons I cannot fathom, Warners provide no significant extras on the disc, not even a theatrical trailer. It couldn't have been for lack of space, their using a dual-layer, fifty-gig disc. It's possible they couldn't find anything to include (their previous DVD release at least had a few production notes), or maybe they just didn't think it was worth the trouble; I don't know. All we get are thirty-four scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; French, German, Italian, Spanish, Danish, Norwegian, Portuguese, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Because of the number of fluke chances and contrived plot devices in the story, "Absolute Power" isn't quite the riveting thriller it might have been. But that's probably more the fault of the usually reliable screenwriter, William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "All the President's Men," "Marathon Man," "Heat," "The Princess Bride," "Misery," "Chaplin"), and the novel he had to adapt. Although Eastwood does his best, as director and star, to liven things up, it's a little too much to do even for his accomplished hand. Still, the movie's got enough twists and turns going for it, and enough humor and suspense, to keep one occupied. Basically, it's a so-so effort from Eastwood on all fronts.