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By Jesse Fox Mayshark

It's a Movie, Stupid

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  It's been hard to tell movie critics from political commentators lately. Hollywood has developed an obsession with Washington, D.C., and Washington has developed an obsession with Hollywood's obsession. So we're treated to ostensibly serious TV journalists (if there is such a thing anymore) analyzing the motives and meanings of major political statements like The American President, Independence Day, and Air Force One.

This is not only patently stupid--the only motive any Hollywood movie has is to make money--but opens up a Pandora's mirror box of self-reflective commentary. Soon we'll have movies about Washington pundits who analyze movies about Washington pundits. Enough!

The only thing anyone should be concerned about is whether these movies are actually any good. Usually, of course, they're not. That's mostly true of two recent video releases that use White House scandal as a plot device.

The first is Murder at 1600 (1997, R), a junky thriller starring Wesley Snipes as a D.C. cop called in to investigate a, well, murder at 1600 (Pennsylvania Avenue--get it?). Snipes is an appealing actor in search of a good role (the closest he's come is White Men Can't Jump), and he makes the most of his easygoing detective here. In fact, the whole cast--which includes Diane Lane, Alan Alda, and Dennis Miller--is fine. But after establishing some interesting characters, the movie buries them in a mudslide of ridiculously convoluted conspiracies and plot twists. The ending is so silly, it makes Air Force One's conceit of terrorists hijacking the presidential jet seem probable by comparison.

The same thing happens to Absolute Power (1997, R), Clint Eastwood's surprisingly mild-mannered yarn about an aging jewel thief who happens to witness the murder of the president's mistress. Eastwood is more interested in developing his character--a weary felon trying to reconnect with his resentful daughter--than in developing the plot, and it shows. Although Absolute Power got better reviews than Murder at 1600--because Clint is an artist now, you know--it's not really a better film. It's nearly as implausible and more limited in scope, giving us Gene Hackman in yet another vile role as the boozing, philandering, and unbelievably slow-witted president.

Pundits who aren't too dazzled by these movies' Washington settings might notice that neither of them actually has anything to say. There's no apparent ideology on display--the administrations in question are never identified as Democrat or Republican--and the films show only a passing interest in what goes on in Washington when people aren't busy coupling, covering up, or killing each other. Why, you'd almost think they were meant as mindless entertainment...

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