Sing, sing, sing.
To State of the Union (1948), The Candidate (1972), Primary Colors (1998), and Ides of March (2011) you can add Power (1986) to your list of essential campaign films. Richard Gere plays Peter St. John, a campaign manager for hire to whoever can pay. “When you get elected, you can do anything you want to do.” The film is a braid of four campaigns that St. John is running with a mix of saccharin and cunning. But something is wrong with this new campaign. Something not right. But St. John has given up on right and wrong. “Why don’t you do what you’ve always done? Just elect Cade and get paid and leave.”
It’s a fuzzy dilemma and a lot needs to happen before St. John is pinioned on its horns. The one man St. John actually believes in, Sen. Hastings, is retiring for health reasons. His old mentor (Gene Hackman) is running the opponent’s campaign in New Mexico against St. John’s rich-but-empty suit candidate. His ex-wife (Julie Christie) suspects there is more to Hastings’ retirement than meets the eye. A mysterious man named Billings (Denzel Washington) is, as Holmes might have put it, playing a much bigger game than backing the cynical Cade (J.T. Walsh) campaign to replace Hastings.
Gere plays the role straight without any Gecko-esque bravado. St. John doesn’t believe that any of it matters and he’s content with keeping that to himself. But there is a defense to the spin and grin world we’re so familiar with today. “What do you want to do,” the aptly named Hackman asks, “go back to the old days, have the machines put their boys in? Is that what you want? Have to newspapers in charge? Have the Los Angeles Times create another Richard Nixon?” Well, we didn’t get Nixon again, but we got Bush and we got Clinton–two men who campaigned with a unappealing relish. Obama has the dignity to at least look like he hates the necessity to campaign (despite being very good at it).
Speaking of Denzel, he played the role of the slightly unhinged power broker to perfection. This is one of his earliest movies and one of his best. Julie Christie, though a beautiful 45-playing-35, is a high powered choice for a character did not need to be English. Still, she played it out well enough with only slightly over-doing her final scene.
The story is very well constructed as you might expect from anything Sidney Lumet makes. It manages to juggle four campaigns, a thriller subplot, a romantic interest, and a great deal of travel with virtuosity. Happily, the movie avoids being musically dated due to a Benny Goodman soundtrack. St. John continuously drums to it, probably fooling himself that the drum pad he beats is just the preamble to that full drum set he’ll buy and play.
Three things that keep this movie from perfection. Hackman plays the role half camp and confused me as to what he was trying to communicate–is he gay or just overexcited? The photography is pretty 80’s. For example, establishing shots are about as dynamic as a high school class yearbook picture. So, when we travel with St. John to Goodman’s great tunes, the playfulness that they’re trying to achieve with these bridges doesn’t quite happen. Finally, I’ve seen the movie and I don’t know who has the power or even what kind Lumet meant. I’ll add as a subsidiary complaint that there’s one cut away shot to an audience reaction that is so (unintentionally) canned that it’s pathetic. A candidate says something the crowd likes. Cut to audience. One guy puts on a surprised face with the O-shaped mouth and everything and claps his little heart out. Just terrible and he’s right in the center of the frame.
Still, none of the movies I mentioned in the first sentence of this review are perfect and yet they are classics in the political campaign genre. This one easily takes its place among them both because of its cynicism and the hilarious feeling that they thought this was somehow a new low. How wrong they were in both thinking it new and a low.