Before it turns slack and sentimental, "Power," Sidney Lumet's foray into the world of political consultants, crackles with a kind of moral static. Lumet lets you enjoy the pleasures of sleaze all the while he's shocking you with it -- the movie feels like a joy buzzer. And for a while, at least, you think this is exactly the acidulous, pell-mell satire you've been waiting for.
You find out what Lumet is up to right at the beginning: The credits appear in lurid, mile-high white letters, an old Gene Krupa drum solo falls in a torrent, and media consultant Pete St. John (Richard Gere), listening on a Walkman, flying on a private plane, pounds away madly with two drumsticks, trying to keep up. It's like watching high blood pressure. Lumet returns to the image (and the song) again and again, and artfully, the characters never acknowledge it -- it's purely a device to pump you up, and the artifice underlines what's phony and gamelike in St. John's world.
The story of "Power" involves a conspiracy by an Arab sheik and his Washington PR man (Denzel Washington) to oust a senator from Ohio (E.G. Mar shall,sk,1 sw,-1 who has played the role more than most senators) and replace him with a puppet. St. John, who will do anything if the price is right, becomes chief strategist in the campaign. When he discovers a bug on his phone, St. John smells a rat; his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a muckraking Washington reporter, smells the same rat; and his old partner, Wilfred Buckley (a meek Gene Hackman) thinks the rat he's smelling is St. John himself.
In the end, the movie shifts into the kind of moralizing that Paddy Chayefsky used to inflict on us regularly, particularly in Lumet's "Network," a movie that "Power" resembles in structure and mood. Back in Ohio, the third-party candidate, an idealistic college professor, administers Straight Talk to the usual cast of Appreciative Murmurers. St. John has a dark night of the soul and learns to be a human being, to the tune of Cy Coleman's sticky score. And all the energy goes out of Lumet's style, as the movie's huge close-ups languish like mainsails in a calm.
The last thing you want to see, of course, is Gere as a human being. Sleek and self-satisfied, a little mustache echoing his slitted eyes, Gere, in "Power's" early scenes, is as effective as he's ever been. He's inside the bubble of his ego, unable to relate to anyone else, but here, at least, it's to some purpose. Both Gere and the movie flourish when St. John is jetting around the country, the Crazy Eddie of politics, lurking coolly in gray, high-tech interiors, lit from below by cinematographer Andrzej (The Prince of Darkness) Bartkowiak. As long as Lumet keeps to his aggressive, quick-cutting style, Gere can't hang himself: a little Gere, a slam cut, a blast of Krupa, and "Power" takes off.
Screenwriter David Himmelstein has given "Power" some of the caustic, nasty burr of '50s film noir. When St. John tells one of his clients to get a suntan, the pol's wife says his family's had a history of skin cancer. "You've never had it!" St. John protests. St. John's administrative assistant (Kate Capshaw), a dishy brunet with a Medusa mop and skirts like the drapes of a bordello, climbs into the shower with him and says he's her kind of man. "What kind is that?" "Temporary."
The movie's at its best when Lumet and Himmelstein get you inside this world, worst when they set about judging it. The details are sharp, just crazy enough to be true (a pollster, for example, identifies 18 key voter groups, including "pools and patios"); and Lumet has a ball creating commercials for St. John. Soon enough, of course, Gere and the reliably tiresome Julie Christie are talking about the truth and human beings and making moon eyes at each other. 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.
Power is rated R and contains profanity and sexual themes.