Pete St. John (Richard Gere) is a slick, no-nonsense media consultant whose clients include a South American politician who is under fire from left-wing revolutionaries, the governor of Washington whose popularity has taken a dip since her divorce and remarriage, a wealthy Easterner running for governor of New Mexico, and an Ohio tycoon who wants to win the state's Senate seat recently vacated by St. John's friend Sam Hastings (E. G. Marshall).
For a fee of $25,000 a month plus expenses, St. John handles all aspects of their campaigns from polls to public relations to television ads. This wheeler-dealer insists on calling all the shots, and his decisions have a large impact on the political destinies of his clients.
Michael Ritchie's 1972 film The Candidate also explored the important role of the media consultant in American politics. The unique sizzle in David Himmelstein's screenplay for Power originates in his behind-the-scenes look at how big money, the media, computer technology, and foreign interests have made the contemporary political scene into an arena where very diverse powerbrokers clash.
Many ambitious young men and women are willing to talk openly about their desire for achievement and recognition, but few mention their longing for power. In this film, power gives St. John a psychic life and sex appeal. He packages his clients and reaps the benefits of an affluent lifestyle. However, in the eyes of his ex-wife (Julie Christie), a journalist, and his ex-partner (Gene Hackman), St. John's clout has made him into an amoral individual whose fame and fortune have been achieved by exploiting others.
As Malcolm X observed, power respects power. An Arab consortium has hired Arnold Billings (Denzel Washington) and his public relations firm to help the Ohio tycoon win Hasting's Senate seat. When St. John starts snooping into the affairs of this outfit, Billings institutes some power tactics of his own including bugging St. John's office, flooding the basement of his headquarters, tampering with his private jet, and scaring off some of his clients. St. John steps back and takes a hard look at himself and what he has become.
Sidney Lumet (director of such substantive films as Serpico, Prince of the City, and The Verdict) presents a provocative glimpse of how media experts have replaced the old party bosses and the press as the movers and shapers of politics in the 1980s. But more importantly, he offers viewers a portrait of what power does to those who wield it how it changes them and those they control.