Clint Eastwood, always a director looking to reinvent and push himself followed up the tender love story ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ with a hard boiled political thriller involving the White House ‘Absolute Power.’ He stars as Luther Whitney, an ex-con who specializes in cracking safes and has become estranged from his only child, his daughter Kate played by Laura Linney, since his release from prison. The story comes from the best selling novel by David Baldacci and is aptly translated for the screen by William Goldman.
Eastwood feeds us the information slowly at the beginning of the film, with Whitney appearing as nothing more than a lonely artist seen drawing a sketch in an art museum, whose only friend appears to be a man called Red who tapes the latest football game for Whitney as he is apparently unable to work a VCR. We see him eating dinner alone with nothing but a house full of sketches and paintings to keep him company, with some audiences feeling that perhaps they have stumbled into the wrong movie. Momentum starts to build however when we see Whitney break into a mansion and crack open a safe and we start to realize that perhaps we may have judged Whitney too soon. The small irony of Whitney not being able to operate a VCR yet is able to break into an incredibly difficult and complex security system is a fun aside for the film as even though Whitney is a master criminal he is still an old man who has become stuck in his own ways.
Whilst taking jewellery from the upstairs bedroom Whitney is interrupted by a man and a woman having a sexual encounter and hides away in the closet behind two way glass. The encounter turns violent very quickly when the man starts to hit and throw the woman around, however the woman gets the better of him and is ready to kill him with a knife when she is shot and killed by two security men who burst into the room. A second woman comes and consoles the man saying that it will all be taken care of and to wait outside whilst her and the security men clean up. All the while Whitney watches from behind the glass, eventually coming out to escape but not before he picks up the bloody knife that has been left behind, which is when the movie is set into motion and fans of Eastwood’s thrillers know they are in for a ride.
Ed Harris, ever the go to actor for an authority figure in a suit, plays that role brilliantly here as the cop Seth Frank trying to piece together the crime scene and discover the woman’s killer. He knows that there is a very short list of men who have the ability to crack the security system which was in place and Whitney is at the top of the list. He becomes entangled with Whitney’s daughter to track her father down and a romantic relationship begins to develop making him more involved in the case than he originally presumed. Harris has great chemistry with both Eastwood and Linney in particular the former in which there is a great respect for the thief who has managed to elude the police ever since his release from prison years before. In one particular scene both Seth and Whitney play like they are naive to each others talents as Whitney talks about how he has now become too old for the con lifestyle with Frank trying to figure out the method involved breaking into such a complex security system. Though they are friendly and accommodating on the surface there is a palpable tension throughout the scene as it is body language and what is not being said that gives each character what they need to know.
Unfortunately the thread of the story involving corruption in the White House and a cover-up of the murder feels too cartoonish and far-fetched to ever be taken seriously. The story could have been given some more credibility had the man Whitney saw been a lesser known authority figure yet when it is revealed that he is the most powerful man in the world; snorts of laughter would not be an uncommon reaction. Gene Hackman, a truly fine actor, is not given much to work with here playing President Alan Richmond with scenes that involve him blubbering like a baby when he discovers the woman is dead as well as moments where they turn the Oval Office into the villain’s evil headquarters. Judy Davis playing the Chief of Staff Gloria Russell suffers from the same cartoonish problems with their ridiculous cover up plans leaving viewer wondering how on earth this group of people get elected into the White House.
The relationship between Luther and his daughter Kate is the heart of the story and though it is strained to breaking point at the beginning of the film as events transpire they form a strong bond. After the heist Luther originally makes plans to flee the country yet he becomes enraged by a news report he see’s at the airport in which Alan Richmond offers condolences to the man who’s wife he was involved with killing. He claims this is the reason that he changed his mind and decided to come back seeking justice, but the fact that he would never see his daughter again if he left the country must also be factored in. After a scene in which Whitney is fired upon twice and avoids escape by the police his daughter yells at him why he still decided to meet up with her even knowing that the situation was a setup Luther replies “My daughter wanted to see me.” This shows the redeeming qualities of Luther and reveals to his daughter that she is the most important thing in her father’s life.
The film has a rather flat climax in which the president is killed off-screen after a long scene of exposition in which the husband of the woman who was killed is shown the bloody knife and told what transpired by Luther. This is all told through a news report viewed by Whitney which feels a bit hollow as we never see Alan Richmond get his comeuppance, which may leave the audience feeling slightly cheated.
Ignoring this anti-climax, Kate waking up from her hospital bed after an attempt on her life to find Luther sitting on her bedside telling her that he isn’t going anywhere is the image that should stick with audiences after the credits have rolled. It is the small personal story of an estranged father and daughter reuniting that should resonate with viewers as opposed to the instantly forgettable story of White House corruption.