Clint Eastwood Retrospective: ABSOLUTE POWER

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Absolute Power ranks firmly in the “why’d he bother” category of Clint Eastwood’s career.  It’s not a great movie, it’s not even good, but it’s not egregiously bad either.  It is just there, for better or worse, and truth be told, I’d rather watch a bad Eastwood outing than this blah nothing.

William Goldman talks about how arduous shaping the script from David Baldacci’s novel was, how it necessitated whole-scale elimination of vital characters and plot all in the name of shifting the focus from what is essentially an ensemble piece to what would become a star vehicle for Eastwood’s part, master thief Luther Whitney.

I’m all in favor of this process–trashy bestsellers (a title for which Mr. Baldacci’s debut novel certainly qualifies) often make the best movies because you can gut the interiors and perform a total overhaul.

Problem was, Whitney dies halfway through the novel, and in resurrecting him for the film, Goldman didn’t give him anything to do.  This is the most passive lead role Eastwood has ever had–save one (admittedly pretty cool) murder he pulls off, Whitney spends the movie fleeing capture, and off-screen, I might add.

Not that he’s alone.  No one does anything of consequence.  Eastwood just gathered a bunch of talented actors and filmed them what appears to be twenty minutes after an intensely satisfying meal.

Worst off is second-billed Gene Hackman, the villain of the piece, who has maybe twenty minutes of screen time and is shot and lit the way “Extra # 43” would be.  There’s nothing distinctive about him or his part; you wonder why they didn’t cast some random nobody.

Still, none of this is offensively bad until the last half hour of the film.  It’s here that Goldman and Eastwood’s decision to reconfigure the film around Luther torpedoes the proceedings.

Let me break it down for you.

Goldman doesn’t kill off Luther, but he also doesn’t give him anything of consequence to do–hence all the running.  This is hardly dynamic character work, but it makes sense (wanted men flee), and it lets Goldman tread water while he struggles with his big problem:

“How do I have Luther save the day without writing any significant material for Eastwood to play?”

I’m presupposing that if you’re William Goldman, your time is so jam-packed with wistful recollections of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid delivered to anyone in ear-shot that you can’t be bothered to write anything fresh.  It’s a major issue for a film like this.

Goldman’s solution: he has Luther tell millionaire-philanthropist Walter Sullivan the truth about who really murdered his wife.  Roll Credits.

Forget that Luther is able to breach Sullivan’s defenses so easily to stage this little pow-wow.  Forget that Sullivan believes Luther unhesitatingly, despite Luther’s mile-long criminal rap sheet and overall thievery.  Forget, even, that this move further emasculates Luther; once Sullivan learns the President was responsible for his wife’s death, it is he who violently confronts him, and not, you know, the freaking hero of the picture.

No, what I have a problem with is that it takes Luther more than ninety minutes to wrap up what could have been settled in maybe five minutes.

Assuming, of course, that Sullivan believes Luther immediately (and we have to make that leap because this is a bad movie), then why does Luther wait until the end of the picture to clear things up?

It’s not as if Luther is biding his time, gathering his case against the President.  None of his evasions bring him closer to the truth, or to Sullivan, or to anything resembling satisfying thriller progression.

He knows from the jump who the Big Bad is, he’s got the key piece of evidence that can put him away for good, and so he…runs in circles until realizing the movie has to end at some point?  This from the guy who wrote Butch Cassidy and Misery and Marathon Man and Harper and The Princess Bride?  Are you kidding me?

It’s a special movie whose last ten minutes can render most of its previous 110 completely irrelevant.  Attaboy, Absolute Power!

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