THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON Send This Review to a Friend
Sean Penn keeps proving to be a very special actor. He outdoes even himself in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” in which he plays a loser who decides to try to kill Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. The film, shown at the 2004 Toronto international Film Festival, is a fictionalized version of a true story. As salesman Sam Bicke, Penn makes us feel the accumulation of frustrations, inadequacy and rage that result in seeking a way to make his mark. But even in that respect, he is a failure.
The complexity of Bicke’s personality and mindset is evident as Penn adds layer upon layer to the total picture. Bicke has been in pursuit of the American dream, but each effort results in a dead end. His marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts) has collapsed, yet he nurses unrealistic hopes that there can be reconciliation. He is getting estranged from his children and Marie objects to his dropping in to see them without specific advance arrangements.
The scenes in the furniture store where Bicke works as a salesman are a brilliant illustration of how a person with ethical standards, which Bicke basically has, can be pressed into disregarding them in the quest for success. Salesmanship, as taught by his boss (Jack Thompson) is one big con, and the film places it in the context of other deceptions that the public is asked to swallow. Nixon is shown repeatedly on a video screen, thereby juxtaposing his large-scale deceptions with those in Bicke’s world.
Bicke desperately wants to go into business for himself, again the pursuit of an unrealistic aim. This leads him to steal from his brother and to get his friend (Don Cheadle) in trouble. As Bicke’s life plunges downhill, Penn makes us feel the tragedy each step of the way. It is written on his face. It is apparent in his walk and in outbursts of anger. The thoughts raging through Bicke’s mind are recorded in the form of messages he intends to send to composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Director Neils Mueller, who co-scripted the film with Kevin Kennedy, meticulously builds the suspense. As Bieke grows increasingly distraught, doors are closed to him and we sense an impending emotional explosion. When Bicke finally goes into action, he faces the inevitable and the conclusion is harrowing.
Seeing Sean Penn’s performance would be enough of a reason to catch this film, but the work itself commands its own respect by effectively recalling an actual incident that became a part of history. It has been cleverly molded into an engrossing dramatic tale that tells us something about our country and those who dream of success but live on the fringe. ATHINKFilm release.