Review: Absolute Power – The Book vs the Movie

Two of Clint Eastwood’s films stand out to this writer/critic more than others, 2002’s Bloodwork and 1997’s Absolute Power.    As an FBI Profiler, Terry McCaleb, in Bloodwork and a genius master thief, Luther Whitney, in Absolute Power, these films refine the “Dirty Harry”  investigative skills to the point where they both feel like glossy sequels to the Police Inspector Harry Callahan series which started way back in 1971.

What’s not to love about a character that references Eastwood’s next project when he tells Seth Frank (Ed Harris) “I love true crime”, the 1999 film where the veteran actor plays what’s been called “an over-the-hll journalist.”

What Eastwood does in his catalog of work is to take over the screen.   This isn’t as much Hollywood type-casting Eastwood as Eastwood typecasting himself (play Ringo Starr “Act Naturally), perhaps – partly – to get the films budgeted; or perhaps because this is what Clint Eastwood does best.

Do these two particular films get hokey?  Sure.  The usually reliable Jeff Daniels overplays his parts (plural) in Bloodwork, while in Absolute Power poor Ed Harris is given tough lines that make him appear more dorky than the super-sleuth Seth Frank is in David Baldacci’s debut novel.  You’d never know that Harris is playing a police detective with a 100% batting average for catching murderers, as he is in the book.  What Eastwood does is create an amalgam of characters, removing Jack Graham – the handsome lawyer who is in love with Whitney/Eastwood’s daughter (played wonderfully by Laura Linney in the film) and combining the Graham character with that of Seth Frank.

Rather than bore you with minutiae (though these aren’t trivial details once you get into the story) this is kind of a handy guide for fans of these kind of lost films that deserved a better fate.

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Author David Baldacci – a former lawyer – has a bevy of books out there and is quite popular, but it is this 1996 outing – Absolute Power – which holds your attention. The guy gets a grasp on the reader and – love the plot or hate it – the book is a page-turner in the truest sense of the word. You are drawn in by the characters, the plot becoming incidental to the interaction between the multitude of names that fly by your consciousness.   For the movie version Eastwood masterfully hijacks the plot, the scenarios and puts them in the best mini-series vignettes possible to keep the tempo flowing.

Gene Hackman is better suited to the conniving trial rigger in Runaway Jury than playing an older President Alan Richmond here.  All due respect to Hackman, he’s in great form, and he delivers his lines with the precision we’ve come to expect, but the sociopath president in the book is a lot more vicious, a shark in executive’s clothing, a batterer, an abuser and a charmer.  The Alan Richmond of the book is a sick, twisted, perverted individual.  Hackman – as an older, albeit still ruthless, snake in the grass, comes off more like the lawyer he played in The Firm than the young, lethal chameleon that was needed here.

Absolute Power Movie Trailer

Judy Davis as Chief of Staff Gloria Russell is absolutely remarkable, as is Scott Glenn as Secret Serviceman Bill Burton, E.G. Marshall ( in his final film role) as Walter Sullivan, lovely TV star Melora Hardin as the trampy sexpot younger wife of Sullivan, a fine cast which kinda sorta leaves Ed Harris out in the cold with less-than-perfect one-liners.   Harris has his best moments interrogating Luther Whitney, and that’s the kind of no-nonsense detective work that Seth Frank performs in the book. Again, it is because the film has to be cut up into neat little vignettes that the scope of Baldacci’s work is left on the cutting room floor.

At two hours and one minute the film has plenty of time, but the book needed a Godfather-type treatment, two three-hour films to let the viewers really be exposed to the bizarre and ultra-psychotic leanings that Chief of Staff Russell and President Richmond display in the book.  It is their actions that are the cause – and effect – that draw all around them, including innocent bystanders, into a whirlpool of catastrophe.   That, along with the character development, makes for a unique study of the worst side of human nature, the unspoken rest of the title that the author left off:  “corrupts absolutely.”

IN the book Chief of Staff Russell actually rapes the president while he’s stone drunk, and with the dead wife of the billionaire on the floor beneath them.  It’s hard to get more decadent than that.   She also seduces a younger secret serviceman, Tim Collin, in the book while the film is given an older actor, Dennis Haysbert, to change things up.   In the Eastwood directed drama Collin and Burton (Haysbert and Scott Glenn), are your basic terminators straight out of James Cameron’s science-fiction series. They seek and destroy, as they do in the book, but more machine-like in the movie (again, not enough time to show all the facets of these complex creatures.)   The Bill Burton / Gloria Russell flare-up in the silver screen version  is fun – and memorable – but nowhere near as hateful and spiteful as in the book…even though Scott Glenn precisely delivering a line like: “Know this, every time I see you I want to rip your throat out” gets pretty close.

The key to David Baldacci’s first novel is the character development that the writer’s intuitive skills wrap around the reader; development which keeps one engrossed in a plot where suspension of belief (or reality) is absolutely essential.  Certainly more sinister things have happened in the seats of power around this planet, but that’s not the point.  As with any compelling creation of fiction – be it the Wizard of Oz or the Matrix, we take the worlds we are given at face value as being the stage where these dramas play out.

E.G. Marshall is a more reserved billionaire Walter Sullivan in the film; the book has him as crafty and angry (yet with a warm side for one of the wealthiest men in the world), but Marshall plays what he’s been given –  the “mini-series” role – superbly. He – like Laura Linney and Eastwood – are so well oiled – as are Judy Davis and Kenneth Welsh (a different universe version of lawyer Sandy Lord from the book) – that one realizes (after repeated viewings) that it is their acting skills which work to  makes this drama succeed; it succeeds as a counterpart of and to Baldacci’s unique and captivating author skills.

Absolute Power is a gem of a book and a rough diamond of a film.   They both have not had their full day in the sun and the very special intangibles that make it all so very interesting can be re-created for another time.  Sixteen years after the release of the film, the terrific acting can’t be duplicated with those same players.  Lnney was 33 in 1996; she’s 49 as of this writing   Clint Eastwood is now the age E.G. Marshall was in 1996 –  he’d have to play Walter Sullivan, not barge in to his home and treasure chest in any update – if it could happen in the near future.

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But this little essay is just to give a tip of the hat to an imaginative story, a Commander in Chief  starkly different from that portrayed Harrison Ford’s Airforce One or even Michael Douglas as the corny American President.   Where you don’t have to suspend belief is that to become the leader of the free world could very well take a depravity – a depraved energy –  that would frighten even Norman Bates, and a willing accomplice like a restrained but still crazy Gloria Russell to pull it off.

The malevolent side of human nature is explored and exploited; the power of “the dark side” to put two crazies in control of the most powerful office in the world is something that is not far-fetched.  That is part of the secret of Absolute Power, that twisted negative energy can propel someone to the top.  And that it can turn people’s lives upside down.

Joe Viglione is the Chief Film Critic at He has written thousands of reviews and biographies for,, Gatehouse Media, Al Aronowitz’s The Blacklisted Journal, and a variety of other media outlets. Joe also produces and hosts Visual Radio, a seventeen year old variety show on cable TV which has interviewed Jodie Foster, director/screenwriter David Koepp, Michael Moore, John Cena, comics/actors Margaret Cho, Gilbert Gottfried, Gallagher, musicians Mark Farner and Don Brewer of Grand Funk Railroad, Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore, Felix Cavaliere of The Rascals, political commentator Bill Press and hundreds of other personalities.