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 earlier 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 portrayed 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 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 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 cief 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 does a bad job, 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 coverups and crises of conscience. De Palma did it in Blow Out, which also centered on inadvertently 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.
Written by William Goldman, from the novel by David Baldacci; directed by Clint Eastwood; with Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Judy Davis, Scott Glenn, Laura Linney, and E.G. Marshall.

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