Damn, he's good. Director Clint Eastwood has devised a dynamite opening for Absolute Power that will fry your nerves. David Baldacci's 1996 best seller is a suspense novel that plays like a movie in your head. Eastwood and screenwriter William Goldman (All the President's Men, Misery) have the savvy to treat the material like good sex. They take their time. Savor the buildup. Delay the orgasm. The Oscar-winning director of Unforgiven is dipping into Hitchcock's territory, not to mention Dr. Ruth's, and making fine mischief of it.
Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, a professional thief who breaks into a deserted mansion owned by Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall), an 80-year-old billionaire with a young babe for a wife. The security detectors are state of the art but no match for Luther. He susses out the master bedroom, then clicks a TV remote at a mirror, which swings open to show a vault with a chair in it. The old fart is probably a peeper. Luther shakes his head and starts bagging the coins, bonds, stamps and cash in the vault.
No noise. Not until Luther hears a car pull up outside. He hides in the vault, sits in the chair and waits. We wait with him, holding our breath. A woman in a tight dress enters with a handsome man. From photos on the walls, we know she is the wife, Christy Sullivan (Melora Hardin). We don't recognize the man, except that he is played by Gene Hackman, but Luther seems to know him. The man is drunk, hard-eyed. He dances with the woman, grabs her ass and guides her head to his crotch for a blow job. Luther turns away until he hears Christy scream when the man slaps her again and again. Luther can do nothing. He watches the man punch Christy in the face, splitting her lip. She knees him in the balls and reaches for a letter opener, first stabbing him in the arm before going for his heart. Then two men in suits, guns in hand, rush in and blow her brains out to save the man they are sworn to protect.
Don't read another word! Not if you want to relish the delicious shock that comes with discovering the identity of the man, who is no less than Alan Richmond, the president of the United States. When you do see the movie, come back, and we'll talk....
OK, ready? The question is: When the villain's identity is revealed, after 20 minutes, what's left to keep the pulse pounding? Thanks to Eastwood and Goldman, there is plenty, although it involves a major restructuring (a polite phrase for butchery) of Baldacci's novel.
For one thing, Luther died halfway through the book. Eastwood couldn't see the sense in that, and Eastwood is a box-office power whom the folks at Castle Rock, which bought the book for $5 million, tend to heed. Luther had to live to take down the sexual sadist in the White House; the two killer Secret Service men, Bill Burton (Scott Glenn) and Tim Collin (Dennis Haysbert); and Gloria Russell (Judy Davis), the White House chief of staff, who organizes the cover-up. Eastwood wanted Luther to have a backbone. Scenes were added for Luther and his estranged daughter, Kate (Laura Linney). Luther could have made a getaway – as insurance, he stole the letter opener with the prez's blood on it – but at the airport he sees the president on TV, vowing to find Christy's killer and hugging the bereaved husband who helped put him in office. "You heartless prick," Luther seethes at the prez. "You fucking bastard." Luther is suddenly Dirty Harry.
Hackman has a blast exposing the character flaws in Richmond and the steely temper behind the president's ready charm. The script could have muscled more aggressively into the effect of moral cowardice on the Oval Office – Absolute Power provides only glancing insights into the explosive subject it raises. The demands of the thriller take precedence over ethics. The first lady is never seen; she's out helping the poor. This leaves the field to the brilliant Davis, who plays the chief of staff like a Lady Macbeth in waiting. She clearly lusts for her philandering boss and his power. Though the film never directly connects the current occupants of the White House, this is one flick that the Clintons won't be taking to Camp David for a cozy weekend. Paula Jones, however, should be riveted.
Character is the issue that most concerns the director. Baldacci's readers will be surprised to find the book's hero, attorney Jack Graham, missing in action. Luther is the hero now. Like the gunfighter who tries to reform in Unforgiven, Eastwood's Luther is ready for a chance at a normal life. Unlike the president, Luther has a conscience. It's a rich role, and Eastwood comes out blazing in full, flinty vigor, finding sly humor and touching gravity in the old thief.
There are times when the film bogs down in convention. Kate's romance with Seth Frank (Ed Harris), the cop on the case, is filler. Harris has more fun trying to make Luther confess that he escaped the Sullivan house by shimmying down a rope in the dark. "If only I could do stuff like that, I'd be the star of my AARP meetings," says Luther. Eastwood cannily plays his post-retirement age (66) for laughs. "I've got to get my pacemaker checked," he tells Seth.
Eastwood and Linney establish a feisty rapport that turns gooey only when Luther sneaks into Kate's apartment to fill her empty fridge with real food. But trust Eastwood not to go soft when it counts. When a baddie who nearly kills Kate begs for mercy, Luther snaps: "Fresh out, motherfucker."
Absolute Power is also fresh out of the clichés that reduce most thrillers to formula. Eastwood wants to take us inside Luther. He shows us the tidy row house where he lives, the china plate on which he serves himself a meal, the detail with which he sketches an El Greco drawing at a museum. As a thief, Luther prides himself on detail. As a director, Eastwood prides himself on the same thing. In the form of a wickedly entertaining spine tingler, he offers a meditation on the hope that can flare in a corrupt world. Damn, he's good.