"Absolute Power"

In "Absolute Power," Clint Eastwood is as strong, silent and tedious as ever.


Charles Taylor
March 15, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)

politicians, whores, ugly buildings. To this list of things that get respectable with age we can now add Clint Eastwood. And in his latest picture, "Absolute Power," he's a bit of all three, using his steely persona to sell a crackpot right-wing fantasy, and going about it with the liveliness of a tall, stony eyesore blocking everything else on the horizon.

Feted by the Film Society at Lincoln Center and the American Film Institute and awarded Oscars, Eastwood has gone from disreputable superstar to certified American auteur. Jesus turned water into wine. Eastwood's critical apologists are trying to change celluloid into granite, greeting each new picture as if it were a building block of his legend. They fell all over themselves praising "The Bridges of Madison County" as an "adult" romance, when his laconic deliberateness is exactly what's wrong with the movie. (Who the hell wants a restrained tearjerker?) And though "Unforgiven" deserved at least some of its praise, it's going to be fun to watch the people who greeted it as if it were the Book of Revelation justify the scene in "Absolute Power" where Eastwood, seething, says, "I'm fresh out of mercy," gives a bad guy a lethal injection and we're supposed to cheer. No consideration of the "wages of violence" here.

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In "Absolute Power," Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, and except for his being a jewel thief, he's the same damn character Eastwood plays every time -- a man of few words and even fewer facial expressions. (Each Eastwood tough guy has his own unlikely refinement. Luther is an artist. I assume the reason he eats his solitary dinner by candle glow is that he's drawn to Gainsborough lighting.) The movie is set in Washington, D.C., and its nut-brain setup begins when Luther is surprised in the midst of burgling a suburban mansion. He retreats to a secret vault in the bedroom, conveniently rigged with a two-way mirror, where he watches the entrance of a drunk, clearly adulterous couple. When the sex turns rough, the woman, trying to get away, stabs the man in the arm with a letter opener. She's about to finish him off when his cries for help alert two men who burst into the bedroom and shoot the woman dead.

Before any of these people are identified, we've already guessed what's going on. The wounded man (Gene Hackman) is the president, his rescuers (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) are Secret Service agents and the dead woman is the young wife of the president's strongest ally (E.G. Marshall). This happy group is soon joined by Judy Davis as the president's chief of staff, Gloria Russell (read: Hillary Clinton), the power behind the throne, who orchestrates a cover-up but neglects to make sure she has the letter opener stained with the president's blood. Luther manages to escape, loot and letter opener in tow, and the executive conspirators, who've figured out someone was in the house, crawl back to their lairs waiting for the unseen presence to make his move.

You could call "Absolute Power" pulp for the "The American Spectator" crowd, but since even David Brock has chided his fellow conservatives for Clinton-conspiracy hunting, you may have to drift even further into right field to find anyone who's going to buy it. Still, there are bound to be a few. "Absolute Power" is the embodiment of every conservative paranoid's slathering fantasies about Paula Jones, Vince Foster and Whitewater, about a boozing, womanizing mannequin of a president and his Lady Macbeth puppet master. Even the queasy, unpleasant tone of that sequence is perfect for conservatives, since they get to be titillated by the sex and violence (Eastwood lingers on every humiliation the victim is put through) and take a shocked attitude toward it.

The only reason "Absolute Power" may be worth remembering is as ammunition when some conservative starts pontificating on the liberal bias of movies and bemoaning liberals' lack of civility. If a liberal filmmaker had made a similarly murderous fantasy about a sitting Republican president, conservatives would be howling for blood.

Getting upset at the politics of "Absolute Power," though, is like kicking a retarded puppy. The picture might have gotten by if Eastwood had given it some impudent wit. But he directs to the rhythm of his facial muscles. Seismologists studying the shifting of tectonic plates along fault lines would get bored waiting for Eastwood to change expression. Laying out each plot element with grinding humorlessness, Eastwood plods predictably from sequence to underlit sequence. (The movie was shot by Eastwood's usual cinematographer, Jack N. Green, whose body of work is, I pray, the closest I'll ever get to glaucoma.)

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As an actor, Eastwood has by now developed enough skill to be able to spar a bit with Ed Harris (as the cop who suspects Luther knows something about the murder). His facial lines and scowls and sinews have approached the stylization of Kabuki. (It's one of the movie's howlers that Luther is supposed to be a master of disguise.) But Eastwood still gives his fellow actors -- and the audience -- next to nothing. His mighty squint as he watches the victim being beaten, nearly raped and then murdered doesn't register much more than perturbed inconvenience. A real actor might have made the character's dilemma -- the fear of being caught and the impulse to save the doomed woman -- excruciating. And a good director might have made Luther's guilt over not interceding the springboard for the rest of the movie.

The scene is almost tailor-made for Brian De Palma, since it's an encapsulation of De Palma's great theme, the man who's unable to save the woman. But the memory of the women who die early deaths in De Palma's movies (like Carrie Snodgress in "The Fury" or Thuy Thu Le in "Casualties of War") haunt the heroes. In "Absolute Power," the dead woman is as much an afterthought for Eastwood/Luther as she is for Hackman.

Emerging from his hiding place, Luther isn't too upset to swipe the dead woman's necklace. (Eastwood gives this callousness an easy out by having Luther use the necklace against the president later on, though he clearly has no intention of doing so when he steals the thing.) When Luther finally decides to do something, he isn't motivated by guilt or outrage. He's disgusted by the president's weakness (he snarls while watching Hackman eulogize the dead woman on TV). And part of that despised weakness appears to be the president's reliance on a woman, his female chief of staff, to cover for him. Luther doesn't set a trap for the president and his henchwoman because he wants the truth to come out (the movie's finale makes it questionable that the truth will ever be known); he just wants the pleasure of making them sweat.

That doesn't offer much to the actors, though that doesn't matter much in Hackman's case. He basically phones in this latest weaselly villain performance. Davis tries to give her role some bitchy wit, but she's trapped. How can a strong, sharp-edged actress like Judy Davis be anything but a threat to Eastwood? (Quick: apart from Meryl Streep in "Bridges," name one memorable or strong female character in any Eastwood picture.) Davis has an arguably worse role in Bob Rafelson's upcoming "Blood and Wine," but there she's not working with a director out to make her a ballbusting caricature. The only woman character who seems like a real person in "Absolute Power," in her brief scenes, is Harris' assistant, played by Penny Johnson.

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Like all of Eastwood's work, "Absolute Power" takes place in a male fantasy world, and like all male fantasies that take themselves very seriously, there are people prepared to accept it as a code. In his fawning new biography of Eastwood, Richard Schickel quotes Eastwood as saying that his films add up to ethical beliefs, not political ones. Schickel celebrates Eastwood's work as an examination of what it means to be male.

Mistaking dourness for seriousness, inertia for thoughtfulness, rigidity for integrity and sour cynicism for toughness of mind, Eastwood acolytes can point to the master's "late period" as a meditation on what it means to be a man. They're safe in the knowledge that no one is going to mistake these solemn pictures for the showy testosterone swagger that usually defines macho movie fantasy. And it doesn't hurt Eastwood that he's started giving into the sentimentality that's the underside of macho. Eastwood has made his own aging a subject in his recent roles, and he uses the solitariness of his characters as a way to beg the audience's sympathy. In "Absolute Power" the pictures of Luther's estranged prosecutor daughter (Laura Linney) that adorn his house are the equivalent of an old duffer's baggy cardigans. "Awww, he's all alone in the world," we're meant to think. And he's taking it so stoically that even the tough guys in the audience can mist up while words like "character" float through their brains.

There's no escaping that a generation of American men were raised to believe that betraying any emotion is unmanly, and it's fair to ask how characters like that can be played. But if the stoic male has been embraced as a classic American figure, by God, he's also the dullest. Some men may believe that emotion is unmanly, but who wants to watch an actor who does? Haven't we, by now, found enough good actors who can show what's going on beneath the surface of such men that we don't have to take Clint Eastwood seriously?

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One look at the work of two actors in "Absolute Power," Scott Glenn and Ed Harris (who delivers the movie's liveliest performance), both younger than Eastwood, shows the emotional range that traditionally masculine actors are capable of. Richard Schickel goes on about the "forces always cautioning us that real men don't talk about real manhood," but what good does it do for anybody when critics, actors or moviemakers refuse to talk about emotion? Exploring what it means to be male doesn't have to mean spending 40 years of movies looking as if you're waiting for the laxative to take effect.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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