[originally published in The Weekly, February 5, 1986]
I saw a movie the other day and (you probably aren’t going to believe this, but hear me out) it said that politicians can be confected and marketed just like any other commodity. It seems that when we, as citizens of a democracy, bear witness to a political campaign, we aren’t necessarily being given a fair chance to make an informed judgment about the values, or even the authentic personal identities, of the candidates. The campaigns are, to a large extent, managed events, smokescreens, projections of cosmetic fictions designed and orchestrated by behind-the-scenes consultants called (pardon me while I check my notes here) media wizards. These highly paid people conduct a kind of advertising war in which the consumer/voter is persuaded to prefer Brand X to Brand Y largely on the basis of images—unflattering images of Brand Y, heroic images of Brand X—that don’t always correspond to the candidates’ realities or have much to do with the kind of job each candidate wants to do and would do upon achieving elective office. Moreover, these media wizards may not care whether Candidate X or Y will be good for the country, state, or whatever. They may even have been hired by (where did I put those notes again?) special interests looking to protect some business that could be affected by government policy and legislation. Theirs is a dirty job, such consultants may admit, but it is a job: “As long as our candidate polls 39 percent or better, it makes us look good.” Talk about cynicism! (Yeah, I knew you wouldn’t believe it.)
Power is an overweeningly silly movie that seems to have been made for, if not by, residents of one of the moons of Saturn. No one else, certainly no one who has come in contact with the American political process in the past several decades, would regard the appalled revelations of this motion picture as news. They’re still less likely to find it entertaining.
Richard Gere plays Pete St. John, state-of-the-art manipulator of public opinion and reigning superstar of the game. Pete, we are given to understand, learned his trade from Wilfred Buckley (Gene Hackman), a blustery, unswervingly ethical gent of the old school, then left him to support an unsavory but electable candidate. Since then, he’s been enjoying the fruits of corruption. Except he doesn’t really enjoy them, because he still knows a decent politician when he sees one, and a dirty deal when he smells one. When the deals finally become too dirty, Pete takes a deep breath and Does The Right Thing, essentially forswearing his job and urging an idealistic candidate to just talk straight with the electorate. Whaddaya know, it works—sort of.
After a string of consecutive box-office failures (not all of them bad films), Gere-bashing has become something of a national pastime, and poor Richard will probably come away splashed by most of the egg this turkey is going to lay. That’s too bad because, mostly, Gere does honorably what Power obliges him to do. Pete St. John’s progress through disenchantment to enlightenment remains utterly unconvincing. But the movie is fundamentally so misbegotten, has been so thinly written (the first screen credit for one David Himmelstein) and overemphatically directed (by Sidney Lumet), that a much better actor might well have been stymied.
Power is the kind of movie in which teasing ambiguity is swiftly crowded offscreen by plain messiness. As the picture gets under way, St. John and his camera crew, covering a speech by a Latin American politician, obtain spectacular footage of the candidate rushing to cradle a bloodied citizen in his arms after a car bomb explodes in the midst of the crowd. A question hovers over the scene, nicely unspoken: Has St. John expertly exploited a fluke occurrence, or is he callous enough to have staged the whole thing?
The question may remain nicely unspoken because it never occurred to Lumet and his writer; or because, if it did occur to them, they forgot about it once they’d raised it. At anything like a realistic level, the film defies coherent tracking. After St. John’s professional sleaziness has been copiously established, we are vouchsafed a scene in which a statesman-like senator (E.G. Marshall) apprises Pete of his sudden decision not to seek reelection. It seems only logical to take St. John’s softly expressed regret (“You were one of the good ones, Sam”) as so much phony baloney, yet subsequent plot developments depend upon St. John’s retaining not only a capacity for sincerity but also a vestigial sense of values. The adjustment in our reading of the scene is retroactive, cued less by a growing appreciation of the character’s personal complexity than by a need to make sense of the storyline.
An even worse breakdown in credibility destroys the film’s last hope of sustaining any narrative tension. A coolly mysterious figure named Billings (St. Elsewhere‘s Denzel Washington) enlists St. John’s services in support of one of the replacement candidates for Marshall’s seat. St. John sets his computer ace to ferret out Billings’ corporate allegiances (Arab oil). Billings intercepts the printout, which reaches St. John’s hands in shreds. Chilling pause. St. John instructs his assistant to “have Ralph send out another copy tomorrow.” There is no further mention of the report, of Ralph, or, in the leapfrog continuity of the film, of “tomorrow.” If there had been, St. John couldn’t have spent the next few months of the campaign in ignorance of whom he is working for and the story would have to be rewritten.
People have made good movies about the political backstage. Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972) had a lot of sardonic fun dissecting the campaign machinery within which even an idealistic candidate (Robert Redford) can lose his sense of focus and integrity. (Not the least of the reasons for the film’s success was that the filmmakers wryly acknowledged the resemblances between running a slick political campaign and putting together a slick entertainment.) Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid masterworks The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976) lucidly, and frighteningly, explored the increasing pervasiveness of conspiracy behind the bright public face of modern history in the Land of the Free.
Network notwithstanding (with its cheerfully vicious screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky), nothing has ever encouraged the belief that Sidney Lumet has a sense of humor, or—much the same thing—a sense of proportion. And although he dwells oppressively on the hi-tech sterility of the hotel rooms, private aircraft, and executive suites in which Pete St. John and his ilk spend virtually all their lives, and has cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak light them like dairy cases in Hell, he gets nowhere near Alan Pakula’s metaphysics of modern terror. Lumet’s lugubrious slickness is even more heavyhanded than his selfrighteous grittiness in The Pawnbroker, Serpico, et al., and it pays far fewer dramatic dividends.
Even his much-vaunted talent for directing actors misfires. Except for Denzel Washington’s nuanced iciness as Billings, the performances lack cohesion. Everything is a matter of tics and spurts, like Fritz Weaver, as a wan millionaire taking a late fling at politics, catching spastic enthusiasm from a St. John pep talk. Lumet manages the near-impossible task of making Julie Christie unsexy, and this in a film where (as a journalist undergoing a moral-ethical reawakening even sketchier and more unconvincing than Gere’s) she’s supposed to be reestablishing erotic and emotional rapport with her ex-husband, Pete St. John. People talking about Sidney Lumet often hesitate when it comes to pronouncing his name—lu-met? lu-may? For the record, it’s lu-met. However, Power constitutes one of those occasions when you know it ought to be lummet.
Copyright © 1986 by Richard T. Jameson