Absolute Power Review

This review was written in 2000, three years before Eastwood's sensational return to form with the marvellous Mystic River. This should be borne in mind when reading my somewhat negative comments about his work as director.

During the past ten years, Clint Eastwood has been picking up prestigious awards at a rate normally reserved for the recently deceased. This seems fair enough when you think of some of the fine films he has given us throughout the years. However, it seems to have had an effect on his filmmaking, since in the years following his Oscar triumph in 1993 his films have gained self-importance and lost vitality.

Absolute Power is typical of this depressing trend. It should be a fast, suspenseful thriller, but Eastwood paces it all wrong and treats it as a character piece - the problem being that it doesn't really stand up to a moment's careful examination.

The plot is slightly reminiscent of No Way Out, not least because it involves Gene Hackman as a powerful politician whose sexual practices lead to the death of a woman. As in that film, there is only one witness to the crime, but he cannot reveal himself without becoming the chief suspect. Here, the witness is Eastwood, as Luther Whitney, a brilliant jewel thief who has seen the murder through a two way mirror installed by the victim's impotent husband. Hackman, wasted yet again, plays the American President, whose penchant for sexual assault has caused the woman to defend herself with a knife. Before she can kill the most powerful man in the world, two secret service agents arrive on the scene and shoot her. A cover-up ensues, organised by the Chief of Staff (the wonderful Judy Davis), with particular urgency as the President has managed to cause the death of the wife of his most powerful political ally.

This scene of the assault and the clean-up operation is the best in the film, being both well paced and tightly shot. But things begin to go wrong soon after, as Whitney needlessly draws attention to himself by abseiling out of a third floor window when the Secret Service men come back to pick up a piece of evidence. Why didn't he just hide in another room ? Anyway, the rest of the film deals mostly with the investigation into the murder, led by Detective Seth Frank. He is played by Ed Harris, whose witty, subtle performance is the best reason to see the film. He gets all the best lines and lifts the film every time he appears. Unfortunately, there is also a tedious subplot about Whitney's estranged daughter, played by Laura Linney, who becomes implicated in the case. This is soap-opera stuff, and bad soap at that. The father-daughter reconciliation is laughably cliched and manages to slow the film down to a crawl.

Eastwood draws good performances from the excellent cast, although if a director going to cast Judy Davis and Gene Hackman - two of the best actors in modern cinema - then it would be a good idea to give them something worthwhile to do. Both virtually vanish from the film after the opening scene and then turn up for a dancing scene that is nicely choreographed and totally irrelevant to the the plot. Ed Harris gets some good moments though, especially in an incompetent effort to chat up Whitney's daughter, and Eastwood gives a fine performance as the ageing jewel thief. Thankfully, it isn't suggested that he is sexually irresistable to young women - see True Crime - and he's learnt to use that iconic face to its best advantage. But the characters aren't really much more than cardboard cut-outs, and they certainly can't withstand being examined in such detail and at such length. The slow pace was appropriate for the autumnal love story of Bridges of Madison County or even the elegaic tone of Unforgiven, but this sort of classy thriller needs a faster pace and tighter focus.

There are effective scenes here and there, and a central stake-out scene intended to trap Whitney is executed with cunning staging and excellent editing. But the dialogue scenes are static and dull, and the climax simply doesn't work as it should. We expect a stand-off between Eastwood and Hackman, but we don't get it. Technically, the film is flawlessly, but William Goldman's script needed some ruthless trimming - it resembles a first draft effort. The direction seems lethargic. Eastwood's films have got noticeably longer over the years - his shortest film remains his first, the fabulous Play Misty For Me - and they have started to seem self-indulgent.

The Disc

Warner Brothers have released this DVD and it is one of their no-frills efforts. There's nothing badly wrong with it, but it's not exactly impressive.

The picture quality is mixed. The definition is excellent and there are vibrant colours and good shadings in the darker scenes. But there is some obvious grain in places and some artifacting - Judy Davis's black dresses seem to cause a particular problem for some reason. The picture is, however, correctly framed at 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.

The sound quality is fine. It's a wordy film without many spectacular sound moments, but the separations are effective and the ambient sounds are often involving. It does come to life in a car chase scene late in the film, but is otherwise quite a subtle mix. The music score comes across very impressively.

There are, needless to say, no extras of any kind on the disc. Come on Warner Brothers, can't we at least have a trailer? I never thought I would miss those production notes and cast biographies. To be fair, the R1 disc has only a trailer, so this isn't a case of R2 losing out on a major extra such as a commentary - shall I mention Excalibur at this point? - but for a full price disc, I think R2 buyers deserve better.

A mediocre film is presented here on an absolutely average DVD. I've been a fan of Clint Eastwood as actor and director for nearly thirty years, but, on recent evidence, he's beginning to lose his touch. Absolute Power isn't as bad as True Crime, but it is very disappointing and could have been a good deal better.

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