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Pete St. John is a powerful and successful political consultant, with clients spread around the country. When his long-time friend and client, Ohio senator Sam Hastings, decides to quit politics, he is rapidly drafted to help with the campaign of the man destined to succeed him, unknown and mysterious businessman Jerome Cade. In parallel, and unaware of the potential dangers, he proceeds to unravel the mystery surrounding Hastings dropping out, with the aide of his ex-wife, a prominent Washington-based journalist. But interests more powerful than local arm wrestling are at stake, and things start going awry. Written by
There was a great film to be made on this subject- but this isn't it.
The main character in "Power" is Pete St. John, a highly successful media consultant. Pete is to the world of politics what a public relations consultant would be to the world of business. His job is to advise candidates for political office on the best way in which to present themselves to the media and to the electorate. The film focuses on four of Pete's clients- Roberto Cepeda, running for the Presidency of an unnamed Latin-American country, Wallace Furman, running for the Governorship of New Mexico, Andrea Stannard, the incumbent Governor of Washington State, and Jerome Cade, running for the Senate in Ohio.
We are supposed to accept Pete as a ruthless and cynical individual, and he is certainly prepared to act for anyone regardless of their political beliefs. His four clients are, politically speaking, very different. Cepeda is a left-wing populist, Cade a right-wing businessman with ties to the oil industry, Stannard a social liberal and Furman another businessman but a man with few political ideas even though he is anxious for a political career. Cade is hoping to win the Senate seat being vacated by Sam Hastings, who is not merely a former client of Pete's but also a personal friend. Hastings holds environmentalist views which are diametrically opposed to Cade's pro-business opinions, and Pete suspects that his friend may have come under pressure to stand down from the Senate. Pete is forced to take a hard look at himself and to decide whether (as his ex-wife Ellen and his former partner Wilfred believe) he owes his success to a lack of principles.
The film came out in 1986, a time when America was just starting to recover from the trauma of the Watergate scandal of the previous decade. Although many (principally Republicans) believed that Ronald Reagan, who had just won his second successive landslide victory, had restored the American people's faith in their political system, there were many others (not only Democrats but also many foreign observers) who felt that the American people had been the victims of a gigantic political con-trick, that they had been induced to vote for Reagan by a slick political marketing campaign. A film about a slick political marketing man therefore seemed very topical in the mid-eighties.
The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, and could have been an opportunity to do for the American political system what Lumet had done for the American media in the brilliantly satirical "Network" around a decade earlier. Unfortunately, it never really works in the same way as "Network" had done, for a number of reasons. The first is the acting. "Network" had at its centre a towering performance from Peter Finch, well-supported by excellent contributions from William Holden and Faye Dunaway. There is nothing really comparable in "Power". Although Richard Gere is good in the earlier part of the film as the unscrupulous smooth operator, he seems less convincing later on when Pete rediscovers his principles. The supporting actors are not very memorable; there are some big names in the cast, but Julie Christie as Ellen, Gene Hackman as Wilfred and E. G. Marshall as Sam have all done much better things than this. Perhaps the best is Denzel Washington as Arnold Billing, Cade's ruthless public relations man.
The second reason for the film's relative lack of success is that it never actually succeeds in convincing us that Pete really is all that unprincipled. He may not care very much whether his clients come from the left or right of the ideological spectrum, but we never actually see him do anything unethical until, ironically, after his supposed "conversion" when he supplies confidential information to his client's opponent. We see commercials he makes in support of Furman and Stannard, but both are very mild and defensive in tone. A really unscrupulous politician like Richard Nixon, notorious for his use of "dirty tricks" against opponents, would have sacked Pete from his campaign team for being a pussy.
The third reason is that there are too many competing story lines. It would have made for a more dramatic and powerful film if Lumet and the scriptwriter David Himmelstein had concentrated on just one, preferably the Senatorial race in Ohio, which is the most important and most potentially interesting of the four stories. The Latin American storyline seems to be dropped quite early on- we never learn whether Cepeda becomes President of his country- but the Ohio story is continually interrupted as Pete jets off to Seattle or Santa Fe.
"Power" is not altogether a bad film. The problem is that it could have been so much better. The idea of a film examining political corruption, not just the corruption of those who seek to wield power through holding political office but also the corruption of those who seek to wield power by influencing public opinion, was a good one. It could have been the occasion for a brilliant film. Unfortunately, "Power" tries to be that film but falls some way short of what it could have been. 6/10
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