Power is one of those behind-the-scenes peeks at the wheeling and dealing of political campaigns, always a ripe subject for movies (after all, so little madness needs to be invented). As it happens, Power is not an unusually distinguished essay on the cutthroat gamesmanship that we all know and love, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough.
The main player in this drama is Peter St. John (Richard Gere), a high-stakes public relations wizard with an 85 percent success rate with political candidates. He is introduced to us in a series of glimpses at his various projects.
First, he’s attending the speech of a South American candidate/client, whose rally is suddenly interrupted by a terrorist bomb. When the candidate gets a little blood on his shirt, St. John rushes over with his camera crew, fairly exultant with the public relations possibilities. He excitedly tells the candidate to wear the blood-stained shirt at every subsequent public appearance.
Next, St. John is off to New Mexico, where he oversees the candidacy of a Senate hopeful (Fritz Weaver), then to Seattle for a meeting with the incumbent governor (Michael Learned, once the mother on “The Waltons”). She needs special help in smoothing over her recent divorce, and its impact on the fall campaign.
But St. John’s most pressing public relations gig is the Ohio Senate race. The incumbent (E.G. Marshall), an old friend, pulls out of the running, abruptly. St. John is pursued by a mysterious power broker (Denzel Washington of “St. Elsewhere”) to back another Ohio candidate, one whose resources are vast, but whose intentions are suspect.
St. John’s main business is image-bending. As he tells the hopeless Weaver (a rich city boy whom St. John puts in a cowboy suit before a herd of cattle), “We’ve got to align perception with reality.”
In other words, quit worrying about the issues and concentrate on the makeup and the hair. St. John creates the kind of devious TV commercials and publicity ploys with which we’ve become all too familiar over the years.
But strange things are happening: St. John’s rooms are bugged, his plane is searched, and his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a reporter, is finding some fishy finances connected with Marshall’s wife (Beatrice Straight).
It all sounds complicated, and it is, but it’s enjoyably mounted. Sidney Lumet (and his fine photographer, Andrej Bartkowiak) can orchestrate this sort of intricate setup with clarity, if little subtlety (The Verdict and Prince of the City are other examples). And he recognizes the satire of much of David Himmelstein’s script.
Gere is well-cast as the shallow media hypester, although he does less well with the character’s moral awakening. Gene Hackman does some tasty work as Gere’s friend/competitor. Kate Capshaw is attractive decoration as Gere’s assistant.
An irony surrounds the film that may or may not be apparent to the people who made it. Power is being marketed in just the way Peter St. John might market a film that was a hard sell. It’s a teasing, uninformative ad campaign that doesn’t really tell you what the movie’s about, but merely suggests something sexy and glittering along the lines of “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” (You know: “Power—the ultimate aphrodisiac.” That sort of thing.)
It’s the kind of aggressive slickery that, by rights, ought to make Lumet, Himmelstein, and co., just a bit queasy.
First published in the Herald, January 1986
It didn’t land like Network, that’s for sure. The political stuff looks like child’s play from a perspective 25 years on, and sort of looked like child’s play then. Karl Rove, where were you in ’86?