There’s a great chapter in William Goldman’s Which Lie Did I Tell?, a book filled with great chapters, about the Herculean challenge of writing the Absolute Power screenplay.
Goldman had been hired to adapt David Baldacci’s debut novel, a sensation back in 1994 that had earned its author over five million dollars in movie and publishing rights. A story about a thief, a murder and a few revelations along the way, it boasted almost as many characters as it did pages.
But Goldman had pedigree. This is the man who had fashioned hundreds of hours of archive material on the Watergate scandal into All The President’s Men, and had distilled one of World War II’s most infamous battles into the three hour epic, A Bridge Too Far. Surely a page-turner from an ex-lawyer would be chicken feed to one so experienced? Not quite.
“Absolute Power is the hardest screenplay I have ever written,” confesses Goldman in the chapter’s first line. The problem, it turned out, was too many characters. Sixteen major ones and not a hero to root for among them. The thief who stumbles upon the story’s murder, Luther, dies halfway through. Couldn’t be him, Goldman muses, and then documents the months of writing ahead like one long anguished cry.
Until Clint Eastwood turned up. He wanted to play Luther, he said. And he wanted him to live. So, Goldman’s screenplay, a maze of characters, suddenly has a through-line, a hero to root for. Because, when you’ve got Eastwood, you write for Eastwood.
And to their credit, Goldman and his newfound star and director turn Baldacci’s busy story into a beautifully streamlined chase movie for the first 40 minutes. A few exchanges of dialogue are scattered throughout the first five minutes, but from there it’s all show and no tell, Eastwood’s efficient camera doing most of the work and leaving the audience to do the rest.
It’s a highly implausible story, but Eastwood handles it with a respect and diligence it doesn’t always deserve. The film’s first grand set piece, a murder peppered with foul language and lurid misogyny, is made shocking, not by the act itself, but by Clint’s reaction to it, the camera cutting away to his stunned face.
From there the pursuit begins. Eastwood’s Luther is on the run, the only witness to the murder, unable to turn to the police. It’s one of the most impressive opening sections of any Eastwood film, tight as a drum and leaving you wanting more. Had the film stayed on this course it had charted for itself, uncluttered and simple, Absolute Power would be right up there in the Eastwood canon.
But, Goldman gets bogged down in Baldacci’s overabundance of characters. They work great on the page, where more is often more, but on screen they stifle the drama. There’s little time to develop any of them properly, and Goldman’s lament – too many characters! – comes back to haunt him.
Some of them have their moments. Scott Glenn’s decent Secret Service agent gets the film’s best line, an inspired insult to Judy Davis’ matriarch figure delivered so calmly it comes out even better. And Ed Harris plays the determined cop with more enthusiasm than it deserves.
Others are left stranded, though, saddled with a pulpy excess ported over wholesale from the book. Dennis Haysbert’s nasty Secret Service agent seems almost overcome with joy when given an order to kill an innocent woman, while Gene Hackman hams it up just a little bit too much to make for a convincing…well, I don’t want to give away the surprise.
Holding it all together is Eastwood, the director, and Eastwood, the star. His Luther is the type of character Goldman loves to write, a near mythic criminal (“Only six guys could pull off that job,” intones Harris’ impressed cop), yet still driven by the simple emotion of wanting to protect his family. In that sense, the film’s a pre-cursor to Million Dollar Baby‘s theme of a father finding his daughter, only minus the emotional wallop and plus a dubious synth score.
Two things stand out: even mid-60s, Clint wears a suit better than anyone else, and Goldman is right in his assessment at the end of his chapter. “Absolute Power is not a great movie,” he confesses. True, but it’s still a very enjoyable one.
Nothing, not even a trailer in extras department. So, the only draw here is the picture, which isn’t all that. It has the look of a straight-to-DVD title, a little too much grain that only gets magnified under the glare of high def.
If you’ve got the standard DVD, there’s nothing here to warrant an upgrade. If you’re an Eastwood fan looking to add to your collection, it’s worth a look.
The Film:The Disc:
Absolute Power is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.