The Good, the Bad, and the Elderly

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 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. Here he's looking to retire by snagging the cache of Washington, D.C., billionaire Walter Sullivan (E.G. Marshall) -- the old man has vacated his Virginia estate for a Bahamas sojourn 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 in his craft. But when he finds himself inside the vault behind the master bedroom, with the vault's door doubling as a one-way window, he witnesses a crime.

Unexpectedly, Christy has shown up with a soused gent (Gene Hackman) who gets slap-happy with her. He's none other than Alan Richmond, 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 just as she is 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 mopup 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), he mulls his options: Skip town or finger the prez.

Eastwood, who also directed from a script by William Goldman, loosely based on the 1996 David Baldacci best seller, doesn't seem particularly interested in or even aware of the pulp potential in this material. He's gotten it into his noggin that he too is an artist (winning an Oscar -- for Unforgiven -- 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 safely tucked away behind his blankness.

Baldacci's novel has been thoroughly overhauled by Goldman, which is probably just as well. Cluttered with a Grishamesque plot about a young hotshot lawyer attempting to defend Luther and re-engage Luther's daughter Kate (Laura Linney), it reads like a steroid-pumped movie treatment. (In fact, the book began as a treatment en route to best-sellerdom.) 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 AARP, 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, as in Escape from Alcatraz and parts of In the Line of Fire. 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 psychosis. (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.

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