|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 18 May 1999|
Sleaziness and absurdity are in the eye of the beholder. There are, in fact, quite a bit of both in the 1986 drama ‘Power,’ but at the time, the filmmakers could hardly have foreseen real-life events that would make the world they depict look comparatively fair, rational and well-balanced.
‘Power’ holds up as a fairly intelligent -- if often talky and under-plotted -- look at the American political process. Richard Gere stars as super-consultant Pete St. John, who is involved in major campaigns in New Mexico, Washington and Ohio. The first two races are merely full of showboating and mud-slinging. St. John can’t help noticing that his old friend who’s dropped out of the Ohio contest, supposedly for health reasons, is in oddly good shape and that the icy new candidate seeking his seat has a very enigmatic background. Much to his consternation, St. John finds that his dormant conscience is becoming as active as his avid curiosity.
It’s interesting to see where David Himmelstein’s script for ‘Power’ does not go. The scandals that the film depicts are more fodder for the Wall Street Journal than of the National Enquirer. ‘Power’ ignores the temptation to become flashy: unlike its ambitious, moderately amoral characters, the filmmakers stick to the issue of how spin doctors undercut the chance of any serious, substantial matters arising in political debates. Director Sidney Lumet’s style is a dry, deliberate match for Himmelstein’s conscientious writing. However, they seem to feel they are risking enough by showing what political campaign managers do -- we never get a feeling that anything important will be altered, no matter who wins. This is part of the point, but it keeps us at an emotional distance from the proceedings.
The cast is extremely well-chosen. Gere puts just the right amount of arrogance and charm into his shrewd behind-the-scenes manipulator. Having an actress of Julie Christie’s caliber in the unrewarding role of the protagonist’s ex-wife is overkill, but she gamely makes as much of it as possible. The supporting cast is an intriguing mixture of expert veterans -- Gene Hackman, E.G. Marshall and Beatrice Straight -- and then up-and-comers like Kate Capshaw, Denzel Washington and the late J.T. Walsh, who now seems shockingly young and magnificently cool as St. John’s shadiest client.
The ‘Power’ DVD is in mono and has been modified to 1:3:3 format. This is less of an annoyance than it would be with a film more dependent on image and sound effects, but in Chapter 4, the dialogue track sounds a little disembodied. However, a car explosion in Chapter 2 is visually and aurally striking despite the stripped-down technology and ambient computer noises in Chapter 11 are notably effective. A lush, much-used rendition of Benny Goodman’s "Sing, Sing, Sing" actually sounds pretty swell.
‘Power’ won’t be for everyone. Its insights, while valid, are not new and its low-key plot doesn’t have the kinds of twists one might expect. Still, viewers who can appreciate deadpan satire and a feeling of genuine chagrin at the silliness of selling politicians will find it diverting.