Absolute Power

on February 14, 1997 by Joe McBride
During the final days of Watergate, Gore Vidal asked, "But have the horrors ceased? Is there something that our rulers know that we don't? Is it possible that during the dark night of our empire's defeat in Cuba and Asia the American story shifted from cheerul familiar farce to Jacobean tragedy--to murder, chaos?" Those words could stand as an epigraph to Clint Eastwood's "Absolute Power," a thriller about a sex murder involving the president of the United States.
In William Goldman's adaptation of a novel by David Baldacci, everyone is morally tainted by the sickening crime. What begins as rough sex between drunken President Richmond (Gene Hackman) and his mistress (Melora Hardin) leads to her killing. The movie's moral center, ironically, is jewel thief Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood, also directing and producing), who witnesses the crime and, guilt-ridden over his own passivity, decides not to let Richmond and his aides cover it up.
Eastwood's libertarian bent has always made him deeply suspicious of authority figures, and his direction tautly draws a vise around Luther, the target of three separate sets of pursuers. Unfortunately, to keep Luther alive, the movie piles on so many contrivances that it becomes absurd. When the life of his daughter ("Primal Fear's" Laura Linney) is threatened, mild-mannered Luther virtually morphs into Dirty Harry. Hackman is so purely evil he still seems to be playing Little Bill Daggett, the sheriff from Eastwood's "Unforgiven," while Judy Davis does everything but twirl her mustache as Richmond's ruthless chief of staff.
In opting for such one-dimensional caricatures, the movie seems to be winking at the audience, assuring us that such things couldn't really happen here. "Absolute Power" would have been more genuinely disturbing if the president had been portrayed not as monstrous but as a genial moral weakling like...so many other occupants of the Oval Office. Starring Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Laura Linney and Judy Davis. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by William Goldman. Produced by Clint Eastwood and Karen Spiegel. A Columbia release. Thriller. Rated R for violence, sexuality and language. Running time: 122 min
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