Luther Whitney is an aging master thief who, when we first see him, is sitting alone in an art gallery making sketches of one of the paintings. Later that night he breaks into a large country house, whose occupants are on holiday in Bermuda, defeating the complex security system with relative ease; he proceeds to remove the contents of the vault, situated off the master bedroom. However, the mistress of the house returns unexpectedly with a man (who turns out to be President Alan Richmond), both drunk. Luther takes refuge in the vault, the door of which is a two-way mirror, and witnesses the scene which follows. Events in the next room turn violent: the woman stabs Richmond in the arm with a letter opener and is about to wound him further - when two Secret Service agents burst in and shoot her dead. Gloria Russell, the President's Chief of Staff, then enters and swiftly organizes a cove-up, making it look like she surprised a burglar, but in the confusion the letter opener (which has both sets of prints and the President's blood on it) gets left behind; Luther picks it up when they have left. Realizing they don't have it, the agents rush back up and chase Luther out the window, but he makes good his escape.
Next day he visits his estranged daughter Kate, a county prosecutor, having decided to leave the country; but he gets a cool reception from her. Meanwhile the case has been assigned to detective Seth Frank, who sees inconsistencies in the evidence, and deduces that the only man who could pull off such a robbery is Whitney. He goes to see him, and the two have a verbal sparring match, with Luther acting totally cool - but Frank is sure he knows something. In addition to this Walter Sullivan, the murdered woman's billionaire husband and friend of the President, has hired a hitman to shoot the killer when he is found; the two Secret Service agents latch on to he police investigation with the same intent.
Luther is about to leave the country when he sees the President on TV, vowing his support for his 'friend', and using the situation for political gain. Incensed, Luther goes in disguise to the White House and leaves a photo of the opener addressed to Russell, with a note saying he's not after money. Seth Frank is trying to find Luther, who has now gone to ground, and so approaches Kate and convinces her to arrange a meeting. Although certain of a trap Luther turns up and is in the sights of both the hitman and Agent Collins, but a reflection blinds the hitman and the shots miss; in the confusion Luther escapes.
Seth again goes to Kate - to whom he has taken a liking - and flirts with her, but when he leaves we realize Luther is hiding in the apartment. He tells Kate everything, then delivers the necklace Christy Sullivan had been wearing as a present to Russell (who is, appropriately, staying at the Watergate Hotel), together with a forged note from Richmond. She wears it to a White House function, where she is informed by Richmond where he last saw the necklace. She now decides to go after Kate, in case she knows something. Luther phones Frank and, hearing that her protection has been taken over by the Secret Service, rushes to her aid but is too late - Agent Collins has pushed her over a cliff in her car. Luther gets her to hospital, where Collins tries to finish off the job, but is himself killed by an enraged Luther, who now wants the whole affair finished.
Luther surprises Frank in his own house, and gives him the information he needs. He then goes to Walter Sullivan, posing as his driver, and tells him the story; he gives him the letter opener and drops him by the White House. Meanwhile, Agent Bill Burton - who was always opposed to Russell and the cover-up - has shot himself in remorse, and Russell is arrested. Luther then sees on the TV a live interview with Sullivan who tells how shocked he was when the President stabbed himself with the letter opener. The film ends with Luther and Kate together, about to make a new beginning.
Absolute Power continues Clint's recent trend of surrounding himself with an impeccable cast. There is Hackman, who is gloriously slippery as President Richmond, but who never actually gets to act a scene with Clint, and good support is provided by Linney, Haysbert and the ever-reliable Glenn. But the outstanding performances are from Judy Davis as a chilling Chief of Staff, and most of all Ed Harris. The most memorable scene of the film is without doubt the one where Harris and Eastwood act opposite each other in the coffee bar: the two actors draw out the best in each other.
They are helped in this by a very sharp and often witty script from William Goldman, which never fails to grip throughout the film's two hour length. Unusually, the ending of the film is understated - there are no heroic showdowns of the sort that Hollywood likes so much, and the death of President Richmond is not seen on the screen.
The film also had a personal significance for Clint: it told of a troubled father-daughter relationship, which he acknowledges as one of the attractions of the script: "I'd been there - I could relate to that." He is referring to his relationship with daughter Alison, who appears in the first scene of the film as an art student looking at Luther's sketching, and telling him "Don't give up" - his reply being "I never do".
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