ABSOLUTE POWER (Clint Eastwood, 1997)

I have not read David Baldacci’s first novel, upon which William Goldman based his script, but while watching Clint Eastwood’s spare, moody, often mesmerizing Absolute Power I wondered whether the reference made in the title is as ambiguous with the book as it is with the film. The expression comes from the Victorian historian Lord Acton, who wrote in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” In the case of the president of the United States, specifically, the fictitious Allen Richmond, we aren’t referring to presidential power, which is constitutionally limited, but what Richmond may be able to get away with in his personal life, either actually or presumptively and theoretically, because he is president. But it is Richmond’s Secret Service agents who shoot and kill the one night-stand who strikes Richmond after he strikes her when she rejects his sexual advances. Is it they, then, who exemplify “absolute power” in the service of protecting their president? Or does the title refer to Luther Whitney, the cat burglar who witnesses the entire episode and who at any moment might pounce by way of blackmailing the participants? Is it human fear, then, to which the title refers?; for Luther is awash with fear that the Secret Service agents may take him out just as they did the woman. In effect, it is God who may hold the real “absolute power.” God may be an encapsulation of just such fear.
     Eastwood himself plays Luther. Following art class and a single candle-lit dinner by himself (Luther is yet another of Eastwood’s solitudinous, mostly silent figures—less a man than the shadow of one), Luther ventures into the dark night on foot and into an empty mansion, the camera (along with a searchlight) his fluid companion. Great paintings on the wall adjacent to a staircase pry him away from the downstairs safe he was attempting to crack; upstairs, he discovers drawers of riches ripe for his sack: rare coins; glittering expensive jewelry. By now, Luther has acquired one more companion, at least in our imagination: us. Sounds. Will we be caught? A loutish man and a beautiful younger woman. The sensual scene seems headed for sex; it is attuned to the man’s—Richmond’s—drunken desire, presumption, predatory nature. We do not yet know that the man is president of the United States. What happens happens. One woman, a victim, is shot to death; another woman, the president’s frighteningly efficient chief of staff, Gloria Russell (Judy Davis, excellent), leads the cover-up. (Her manner suggests this may not be the first time that Russell has been called upon to do something like this.) Combinately, these two women encapsulate director Eastwood’s misogynism.
     There is a third woman prominently involved in the plot. A prosecutor. Luther’s daughter, Kate. Having spent time behind prison bars, having missed Kate’s growing up, Luther is ashamed of himself in relation to Kate. This resonates in particular due to a Pirandellan stroke of casting: in the film’s opening scene, in her first adult role, Clint’s daughter, Alison Eastwood, appears as a fellow art student who silently admires Luther’s work: a copy, it could be the effort of a budding art forger. It is possible, I suppose, that the young woman is silently admonishing Luther—or that he, whatever her intention, feels she is admonishing him. One might add that Clint may feel he was as absent for Alison during her growing-up years as Luther was for Kate.
     As the film proceeds, the plot gets sillier and sillier; but, early on, Luther’s flight from the mansion as the Secret Service pair pursue him to murder him, is fear-fraught, pure waking-nightmare cinema—gorgeously cinematographed, in color, by Jack N. Green.

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