Superficially, Sidney Lumet’s 1986 movie Power is a fairly standard acerbic look at political campaigning, with all the usual cliches of conspiracy, dodgy foreign intervention, cynical campaign managers, idealistic candidates tempted to drop what they believe in the search for votes and good winning out over evil. Standard, if as well made as you might expect from a Sidney Lumet film – and one featuring Richard Gere, Julie Christie, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman. Denzel Washington’s performance is particularly strong, winning him the 1987 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.
At the time it got (and deserved) rather mixed reviews, because for all the panache of the star cast, the story isn’t that great. It flits between too many campaigns and the idea of candidates being encouraged to drop their beliefs in a hunt for votes is such a staple of cynical political fictions that it lacks much of an emotional punch.
However, for those interested in political campaigning it is worth a second look, as it paints very effectively a portrait of the sort of campaign consultancy that was very common in the US in the 1980s and 1990s (and even into the 21st century). It is campaign consultancy which sees elections as just being about TV debates, TV adverts and polls telling you what to say in both. In that world, the whiz kid campaign consultant flies in, lectures the candidate on sticking to the polls, stays up late finishing a couple of TV spots and then heads off to the next campaign on their roster.
The plot may be lacking, Richard Gere may be over the top as the campaign consultant – and yet the sense of what campaign managers used to do is evocative and, for all the outlandish angles to the plot, pretty realistic.