Friday, June 8, 2012

Power

The rise of media consultants in the 1970s and 1980s changed the way political campaigns were run and how politicians were sold to the public. Make no mistake; this is an expensive practice with costs to run a successful campaign increasing every year. It is the job of the media consultant to create the most attractive image of their client to present to potential voters while creating a negative image of their opponent. This is nothing new, but back in 1986 when Sidney Lumet directed Power from a screenplay by David Himmelstein, the notion of a media consultant wielding influence was a novel concept. So novel that the film received mixed reviews by critics and was virtually ignored by audiences (it failed to recoup its modest $16 million budget). With hindsight one can see that the film was ahead of its time with a slick, charismatic protagonist that anticipated real-life counterparts like James Carville. Power asks some fascinating questions about the nature of power and influence and its effects. It also remains one of Lumet’s sorely under-appreciated films.


The consultant’s job is to create a positive image of the client and this is evident in the film’s opening scene where a South American political leader is making a speech to hundreds of people in a crowded town square. A bomb goes off and the man springs into action, rushing to the aid of a woman injured in the blast. He cradles her head in his arms, making him look like an instant hero until we see a camera crew documenting the entire event. Successful media consultant Pete St. John (Richard Gere) coaches the leader once he hustles him into a waiting van, telling him to wear his now bloody shirt for the rest of the campaign. Pete proceeds to tell the man what to say, how to act, and so on. We’re left wondering if the whole thing was staged or did he brilliantly capitalize on the moment?

Pete arrives back at his offices in the United States and they are a sleek, sterile chrome and metal affair with artificial lighting everywhere. He’s briefed on his upcoming meetings by Sydney Betterman (Kate Capshaw), his assistant and lover. We see Pete at work, juggling several clients at once. In New Mexico, he tries to coax a good performance out of a man by the name of Wallace Furman (Fritz Weaver) who’s running for governor. The clearly nervous man comes across as weak and hesitant on camera and so Pete gives him a brutally honest pep talk, laying it all out: “No offense but right now you look too soft to change a tire much less a state.” He tells Furman, “You’ve got align the perception with the reality.” Pete then proceeds to tell the man to go on a diet, start working out, change how he dresses, and get a tan.

This shocks the wealthy businessman who complains that Pete seems to be running his entire life, to which the consultant replies, “That means framing the overall strategy as well as deciding all the specifics.” And this includes the look of the campaign, what the bumper stickers will be, creating advertisements for print, radio and television, and analyzing polling numbers. Furman weakly counters that he wants to address some of his long-term plans, which Pete interrupts and tells him, “They’re not important. My job is to get you in. Once you’re there you do whatever your conscience tells you.” Richard Gere delivers this last line with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as this scene tells us everything we need to know about his character. Pete exudes the charisma and confidence of a man at the top of his profession and Gere nails it with a polished delivery that is one part used car salesman and one part gregarious con man.

Meanwhile, an unidentified Middle Eastern businessman is impressed with Pete’s work with the South American politician and how it undid a lot of work that his boss spent significant money on. He asks Arnold Billing (Denzel Washington), a rival public relations expert, to hire Pete for a job. He wants him to manage the campaign of a rich but little-known Ohio businessman Jerome Cade (J.T. Walsh) so that he’ll win a Senate seat. However, it is a spot that has been vacated by Pete’s friend Sam Hastings (E.G. Marshall) due to an unidentified illness so there is a possible conflict on interest. However, we’re never sure why Pete is so close to Hastings and why his decision to drop out affects him so much. Was he Pete’s mentor? Are they related? Pete seems to respect Hastings integrity but this seems rather odd for a man who is loyal only to money. We learn that Hastings may not be ill at all so why is he dropping out all of the sudden? It seems like Billing might have had something to do with it. He’s a young, up and comer who clearly has set his sights on taking down Pete.

And why not? Pete is one of those guys that travels in his own private jet. He wears expensive suits, has sex with his attractive assistant and has a roster of only the wealthiest clients. He’s arrogant and confident but Hastings is his lone weak spot, which Billing seeks to exploit. Pete also crosses paths with his boozy ex-mentor Wilfred Buckley (Gene Hackman) who has a memorable scene embarrassing himself with a drunken tirade on an airport runway. Yet he still shows glimmers of brilliance in a nice scene where he tells a grassroots underdog candidate (Matt Salinger) what he needs to do to make a difference.

J.T. Walsh is at his reptilian best as an ambitious wannabe politician with money to burn and ruthless ambition to spare. He seems like an ideal client for Pete – he’s filthy rich – however something doesn’t feel right. Billing works for him but in some kind of vague capacity. Cade appears to be simpatico with Hastings’ policies except for one: his pet project, which was solar energy. Is that the real reason the senator suddenly vacated his seat? When Pete attempts to dig deeper into Cade’s past, Billing comes after him, setting up an intriguing game of cat and mouse. Denzel Washington is impressive in an early role as an icy, amoral media consultant. With limited screen-time, he creates an imposing figure because Billing is such an enigma with a secret agenda. In some scenes, Washington sports a dead-eye look that is quite unnerving and in others he is all smiles but it isn’t meant to be reassuring, just creepy.

Power is a little long and a subplot involving Pete’s ex-wife (Julie Christie) feels like unnecessary padding and could have easily been removed. The film also skirts the edges of cutesy idealism, especially when a character at the film’s climax delivers an inspirational speech a la Network (1976), but fortunately Lumet pulls back to show that the political landscape hasn’t changed all that much.

In the 1980s, Gere was an A-list sex symbol thanks to An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) but he parlayed that clout to tackle a diverse roster of roles in films like American Gigolo (1980), Breathless (1983) and, of course, Power, which may be the best of the bunch. He plays a slick media spin-doctor that begins to grow a conscience and how one ruthless competitor starts to chip away at his confidence. Gere is able to get under Pete’s skin, past the surface details to reveal someone that questions what he’s doing. Over the course of the film Pete finds that he no longer delights in crushing his opponents. If anything, he experiences a crisis in confidence and Gere is quite excellent at conveying this dilemma. The actor is also good at turning his trademark boyish charm on and off while conveying just what a master manipulator Pete is. Yet, it is his relationship with Hastings that humanizes the character. Interestingly, Gere was not Lumet’s first choice to play Pete St. John. In fact, he had been unimpressed with the actor’s performances at the time. However, the two men met and talked over two days. Lumet said, “He was so intelligent, with such a strong sense of self, and he showed such a real desire to act again—to get back to real acting.”

They say knowledge is power and that is certainly true when it comes politics. Insider knowledge and the ability to get it and then use it is everything. That is what makes Pete so successful. However, when someone else can get it faster and use it just as ruthlessly then this creates a conflict. Power takes a fascinating look at media manipulation, like how a goofed take for a political ad can be tweaked in editing to actually make the subject look good. It’s all about perception and in that sense it is a lot like filmmaking. The film is more than just being about politics. Lumet also gradually incorporates elements of a thriller as Pete’s dealings with Billing and Cade begin to affect his personal and professional life.

Power originated from newspaper reporter David Himmelstein. He had previously worked as a speechwriter for former Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts. He got the idea while attending Harvard as a Neiman Fellow. During election night in 1982, he saw a continuous loop of T.V. spots from candidates across the United States that a fellow student had assembled. Himmelstein found it fascinating because it made him realize that “the candidates were all basically interchangeable.” Furthermore, he realized that “the guys who had put together the spots were at least as significant, if not more significant, in the process.”

As early as 1984, Himmelstein began dabbling in screenwriting and when one of his scripts won a prize, he was noticed by Hollywood. His second script, entitled Power, was picked by Lumet as his next directing project but only after it underwent five rewrites. The veteran filmmaker was drawn to the project because he saw it as a commentary on “the mechanization of our lives, the loss of contact,” and how it was about our “terminally compromised political process.” He felt that “a candidate doesn’t talk to us anymore. They talk to us through someone else. These people are not corrupt. It’s much more frightening than that because we are not talking about evil people, we are talking about a system that is slowly evolving.”

Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half stars out four and wrote, “But the movie itself seems to sense that it's going nowhere. The climax is a pointless, frustrating montage of images. It's a good montage, but it belongs somewhere in the middle of the movie; it states the problem, but not the solution or even the lack of a solution.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, Power is a well-meaning, witless, insufferably smug movie that – if it does anything at all, and I'm not sure it does – anesthetizes legitimate outrage at some of the things going on in our society.” The Toronto Star’s Ron Base wrote, “When everyone is in place, and such matters as conflict and plot begin to emerge, the movie groans into the sort of tiresome, preachy dialectic that Lumet is always being accused of making. This time his accusers are right.” In his review for the Washington Post, Paul Attanasio wrote, “What's genuinely odd about Power is how stale it gets whenever it tries to get at an emotion – everything human is alien to it. The movie only works when it's immersed in the very world it professes to despise.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson criticized Himmelstein’s script: “In writing his didactic melodrama of manipulation and image-making on a global scale, Himmelstein apparently felt his news—that today's political candidates are created not only equal but interchangeable—could stand on its own, without the need to beguile us with characterization or suspense.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott criticized the casting of Richard Gere: “Casting Gere as a callow but clever media consultant was a stroke of inspiration, but when Gere is required to find integrity and sincerity, the performance falls apart – integrity and sincerity from Richard Gere are like sweetness and light from Joan Collins.” The rare positive notice came from the Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel, who gave it three out of four stars, and wrote, “Holding everything together is that the film accurately fixes on our collective guilt about the superficial basis upon which most of us vote. There’s also Richard Gere’s taut portrayal of Pete St. John, a slick imagemaker who shapes his clients into just so much silly political putty … Gere is at his best in this sort of oily role.”

Looked at now, Power was incredibly prescient. At the time, the public knew little about political and media consultants but thanks to the highly acclaimed documentary The War Room (1993) and popular satirical comedy Wag the Dog (1997), people have a better idea of what these people do. In fact, the two successful media consultants that helped get Bill Clinton elected as president, as documented in The War Room, went on to become media darlings in their own right, appearing in T.V. and films. This kind of consultation has become a staple of political campaigning and is big business. With the right kind of spin and a media savvy candidate, the sky’s the limit. Lumet’s film shows the darker side, like how campaigning is all about image and very little about substance. Elections have been reduced to popularity contests. Complicated issues have been reduced to simplistic soundbites. In Power, politics are a dirty business (with an emphasis on business) and it shows in captivating detail just how dirty by taking us behind the scenes to show us the inner workings and the image creators. Lumet’s film is ripe for re-discovering as much of what it examines has not dated at all, making it more relevant than ever before.


SOURCES

Cunningham, Frank R. Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision. University Press of Kentucky. 2001.

Frederick, Arthur. “From Reporter to Screenwriting Success.” United Press International. January 24, 1986.


Friendly, David T. “Selling Power: Trying to Come Closer.” Los Angeles Times. January 26, 1986.

2 comments:

  1. Somehow, even as a tremendous fan of Lumet and of most of the A-list and character actors listed here, I've never seen this one. I always appreciate a prescient political film, from the Capras to A FACE IN THE CROWD to something like this, which sounds pretty fantastic. Another fine writeup!

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  2. Sean Gill:

    I think you'll dig this one. It is a film ripe for being rediscovered.

    Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words.

    ReplyDelete