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Power Outage

Eastwood crawls over the hill and into the sunset

In Absolute Power, Clint Eastwood plays Luther Whitney, a master thief who burgles on little cat feet. He's as stealthy as the Pink Panther pilferer, though not nearly as amusing. Luther, you see, is presented to us as an artist. We first see him at the National Gallery dutifully copying out a portrait by an Old Master. He looks like a superannuated art student; we anticipate that his copying will be linked to some scam. But no, Luther sketches because he must -- his reproductions are the tribute of one artist to another.

If you're going to be robbed, implies this movie, better Luther than some slobbering whippersnapper toting an Uzi. Why, it's practically an honor to be robbed by Luther. He confers his connoisseurship on your booty.

Of course, Luther only goes after the big hauls, and in Absolute Power he's looking to retire by going after the cache of Washington, D.C. billionaire Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall) while the old man has vacated his Virginia estate for a Bahamas vacation with his chicklette wife, Christy (Melora Hardin). The film's best sequence is its first: the estate heist. Carefully snipping his way through Sullivan's state-of-the-art security system, Luther takes an almost sensual pleasure from his craft. But then he finds himself inside the vault behind the master bedroom and, with the vault's door doubling as a one-way window, witnesses a crime.

Unexpectedly, Christy has shown up with a soused gent who gets slaphappy with her. He's none other than Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman), the president of the United States. As Luther watches in that aghast, jaw-clenching way that is Eastwood's specialty, two Secret Service agents (Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert) splatter her all over the bedroom just as she's about to plunge a letter opener into Richmond's poisonous heart. Heading the ensuing mop-up brigade is Chief of Staff Gloria Russell (Judy Davis), who speaks for everyone when she says, "Do you realize what a shit storm we're in?" (She and Luther have matching clenched jaws.)

But the mop-up is botched; Luther scrams with some crucial evidence in tow. With the president's men (and woman) on his heels, followed by homicide detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris), Luther mulls his options: Skip town or finger the prez.

Eastwood -- who directed from a script by William Goldman loosely based on the 1996 David Baldacci bestseller -- doesn't seem particularly interested in or even aware of the pulp potential in this material. He's gotten it through his noggin that he, too, is an artist (winning an Oscar can do that to you). And he seems equally oblivious to any of the material's "larger" themes. For this movie to have any emotional resonance, the central conflict ought to proceed from the fact that Luther did nothing while a murder was in progress. But Eastwood is not one to flaunt his angst. Any crises of conscience Luther may have are tucked away behind his blankness.

Baldacci's novel has been thoroughly overhauled by Goldman, which is probably just as well. Cluttered with a Grisham-esque plot about a young hotshot lawyer attempting to defend Luther and re-engage Luther's daughter Kate (Laura Linney), the book reads like a steroid-pumped movie treatment. (In fact, it began as a treatment en route to bestsellerdom.) But Goldman just replaces Baldacci's huckster hackerism with his own. The plot has been stripped to its cornball essentials -- Luther and his estranged daughter, a high-powered county prosecutor, represent the film's "heart." Its "head" is Luther's plan for payback. Neither heart nor head seems in the right place.

What Eastwood is really enamored of is Luther's over-the-hill-gang weariness. We're supposed to recognize something "classic" in it. Luther is in a long line of aging movie outlaws who are ennobled by being out of step with the ways of modern crime. (He jokes about his membership in the American Association of Retired Persons.) He may use high-tech equipment, but he still does things the old-fashioned way. He has spent time in prison but has never killed anyone -- except, of course, as a decorated war hero in Korea (no less). For all we can tell, he doesn't even carry a gun on the job. He'd be more likely to carry a sketchpad.

Eastwood is always at his best when he's at his most hard-bitten. His lean wolfishness can be forthrightly scary. But whenever he tries to show off the tenderness behind the blankness, as in The Bridges of Madison County or Absolute Power, the effect is wearying -- and baffling. Watching Eastwood's Robert Kincaid in Madison County, I kept expecting his rugged politesse to crack into full-blown Dirty Harry psychoses. (Madison County is much more enjoyable if you think of it as Dirty Harry Goes Undercover in Iowa.) His Luther doesn't show the effects of a life lived on the edge; his solitariness isn't spooky, it's blah. Eastwood is a flat-footed romantic, with "heartfelt" line readings that make him seem audio-animatronic.

Even the scenes with Kate, which one might expect to drip with the honeys of love and resentment, are pro forma. Kate has had nothing to do with Luther because of his life of crime, but, of course, that's just a front: She really craves a father. And Luther loves his daughter. We know this because Goldman hauls out that old chestnut of a scene where Kate finally visits Luther's apartment while he's away and discovers a shrine of her photos -- including pictures of her at such events as her law school graduation, at which he supposedly was not even present. There's something a little creepy about Luther's surveillance-assisted shrine, but Eastwood encourages us to see it the way Kate does -- as an expression of fatherly love. In the same way, we're supposed to think it's cute that he picks his way into her apartment while she's away and stocks her refrigerator. Just call him Stealth Dad.

For all its world-weariness, Absolute Power looks as if it were made by people who have never set foot in the real world. Luther, for example, is finally motivated to do the right thing when, postmurder, he watches the president on television gush his sympathies for his "good friend" and mentor Walter Sullivan. This presidential sound bite prompts from Luther one of those trademark out-of-the-blue Eastwood snarls: "You heartless whore, I'm not going to run from you." Is Luther so naive as to believe the president would pass up such a rich photo op? Or maybe Luther just doesn't watch TV all that much? (In one of the film's many "cute" humanizing touches, we see him pick up a cassette of a televised football game from his friendly neighborhood bartender -- it seems this master thief doesn't know how to program his VCR.)

The movie's unreality extends to the murder investigation. Even though the wife of a highly connected billionaire has been murdered, the police work spearheaded by Seth Frank seems more appropriate to a midlevel carjacking. He pokes around for clues and cozies up to Kate. (Both are conveniently unmarried live-alones.) He's a starstruck homicide detective in awe not only of Sullivan but of Luther -- war hero and thief artiste. When the Secret Service, disguising its involvement, sends a guy over to homicide to "fix" the phones, Seth doesn't even think anything's fishy -- even though the guy might as well be wearing a sign around his neck saying "wiretapper." And where is the Washington Post -- or any other news outlet -- in all of this? Goldman, having scripted All the President's Men, probably figured he'd had it with the Post, but the effect is creepy -- as if a neutron bomb had neutralized the press corps.

Eastwood and Goldman are equally unworldly -- and opportunistic -- when it comes to their depiction of Sullivan. He may be as rich as Croesus and a presidential kingmaker, but, like Luther, he nevertheless must be depicted in the most flattering of lights. And so this old goat's marriage to a young chippy is presented as true love -- at least on his side. In this way we are made to sympathize with Sullivan's hurts, just as we are made to sympathize with his vast wealth because he came from poverty and donates billions to charity and -- a man after Luther's own heart -- collects art. Original art. E.G. Marshall, who bears a remarkable resemblance here to Edmund Wilson, doesn't play Sullivan as some rheumy crank. He's gracious and upright. When Seth asks him about that one-way window in the vault, Sullivan volunteers that it was his wife's idea. She wanted him to watch her sexcapades, but his heart just wasn't in it. What a guy! All those billions, and he's not even a pervert!

Eastwood and Goldman probably think they are being fashionably "modern" in showing us a president who is distinctly unheroic and horrible. But the ploy just comes across as cynical. Alan Richmond is a generic bad politician without any political dimensions whatsoever. He has no identifying markers, no philosophy, no nothing. This must be one reason why Hackman gives such a cruddy performance: He's being called on to play a contourless crumbum. Saddled with an equally insulting role, Davis gives what must be her first terrible performance on film. In Baldacci's novel, the chief of staff was a ball-breaking powermonger who wrapped her steel thighs around, for starters, Secret Service agents and the president. Eastwood has eliminated her lechery, but Davis, looking dazed and confused, still clings to the wreckage -- she comes across as someone who is both neutered and in heat. Still, it's always fascinating when a great actor gives a terrible performance, and Davis's humdinger is more fun to watch than Eastwood's measured nothingness. When the Secret Service agent played by Scott Glenn tells her, "Every time I see your face I want to rip your heart out," you know just what he means.

Eastwood's nothingness is nevertheless a distinctive nothingness. This is brought out in the way he refuses to come across as anything but Clint Eastwood. In Absolute Power, Luther is supposed to be not only a master thief but a master of disguise. And yet every time Luther turns up incognito, the shock is how much he hasn't changed. (It's like Tom Cruise in disguise and fooling none of us in Mission Impossible.) Why do movie stars think they will be camouflaged by a pasted-on billy-goat beard and horn-rimmed glasses? During one of the film's more ineptly staged getaways, Luther sheds his overcoat and shades and walks off disguised as a policeman, and you half expect someone to come up to him and ask, "Clint Eastwood?"

It's possible to make a great film about sexual depravity and cover-ups and crises of conscience -- De Palma did it in Blow Out, which also centered on an inadvertent eavesdropping on a high-level political crime. But Eastwood isn't really interested in shaking us up the way De Palma did. When Luther doesn't step in to prevent a murder, the moment is just a blip. When John Travolta's sound engineer in Blow Out couldn't prevent his girlfriend's murder, it was harrowing. What Absolute Power is really about is not the awfulness of power but something far more mundane: It's about a veteran movie star who wants to ease his can-do image into the sunset. Like Luther, Eastwood wants to be perceived as a "classic." In Absolute Power, he's made the first AARP political thriller.

Absolute Power.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. With Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Judy Davis, Scott Glenn and E.G. Marshall.

Rated R.
137 minutes.

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