Film Reviews


By • Dec 29th, 2004 •

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Presented by Anhelo Productions / Worldwide sales by Senator International
No MPAA rating / 103 minutes

If maintaining objectivity has never been your strong suit, have no fear. Watching Niels Mueller’s THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON could be that master class in stenographer-level impartiality you’ve been waiting for your whole life. With all the trappings of an Oscar contender – a thinking person’s A-list cast (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle), a title that reeks of indie-importance, a first-time director with hip writing credits (TADPOLE, SWEET NOTHING) and a December release – the film seems destined for grand-slam greatness. As any self-respecting, pugnaciously unconditional Penn fan would do, you’re already busy puffing up your chest and proclaiming you memorized the screenplay of THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN in college (de rigeur Penn-man behavior). Yes, before you even enter the darkened theater, you and your Carlito-loving Raisinets are already raving. Sadly, this studiedly grainy, claustrophobic contribution to the descent-into-madness genre is excruciatingly boring, monotonous and Julia-Roberts-movie predictable.

Inspired by a true story about an everyman’s attempt to assassinate the 37th President of the United States, THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON is a revisionist biopic of Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), a deeply lonely, paranoid office furniture salesman whose obsessive, irresponsible and unstable behavior has lost him his family. With a desperate and single-minded desire to win back his ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and three children, Sam sets about pursuing his version of the American dream: to ultimately quit his job and open a tire-delivery business with his sole friend Bonny (Don Cheadle).

The year is 1974 and Sam’s progressive alienation from society is intended to mirror the corruption, scandal and hopelessness of that post-Watergate period. Operating increasingly from a dank apartment that’s cheaply reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s panic-inducing pad from THE CONVERSATION, Sam cannot endure the weight of perceived insults he experiences in everyday life. Moving through the universe with his weird blend of increasing hyper-sensitivity, nervous politesse and conspiracy paranoia, he finds the hard realities of life to be too much for him.

Sam’s relationship to work and responsibility constitute the framework for his ultimate meltdown. His attempts to put on a positive, conformist face for his sleazy, aggressive, controlling boss Jack (the fabulous Jack Thompson) quickly give way to a steroidal dose of malaise and distrust. Sam is “subject” to countless acts of “humiliation” and “abuse”. Jack gives him a copy of Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People,’ instructing him to live and breathe it. Later, Jack demands that Sam shave his mustache to look more like a “family man”. Sam nearly explodes. After making repeated, unscheduled and glassy-eyed visits to a loan officer at the Small Business Administration, Sam is sternly informed that his application will indeed take the usual two months for processing. After making repeated, unscheduled and glassy-eyed visits to his ex-wife’s house, Sam is sternly informed by Marie that she doesn’t want him coming around anymore. Obsessed with racial inequality and the idea that he too, the working stiff, is a second-class citizen, Sam wields a gun, pantomiming the killing of an ill-tempered customer of Bonny’s.

This all might be riveting if it weren’t for the fact that the events leading up to the highly aborted assassination attempt are painfully repetitive, quotidian and anti-climactic. Oh, and that includes the assassination attempt itself, too. Cinema’s rich and venerable tradition of anti-hero crack-ups are a tough act to follow, no doubt: De Niro’s Travis Bickle, Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik, Hackman’s Harry Caul, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance, Douglas’s William Foster, De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin etc. With those classic celluloid moments in mind, a leading man venturing into a loss-of-tenuous-grip-on-reality assignment might very well be itching for a beta-blocker, come his first day on the set. But, this isn’t any leading man. It’s a terrible thing to even think, but Penn’s Sam Bicke is more like Penn’s Sam Dawson (I AM SAM) than anything else.

Watching THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON, one gets the distinct, creepy feeling that Mueller’s directorial debut was held hostage by a major leading man’s insatiable need to fill the screen with an overwrought, over-acted two-hour close-up. If you still insist on plunking down a crispy Hamilton to witness this incredible act of onanism, a quick re-viewing of TAXI DRIVER and three to four boxes of Raisinets may be your only hope of survival.

Director: Niels Mueller
Screenwriters: Niels Muller, Kevin Kennedy
Producers: Alfonso Cuaron, Jorge Vergara
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editor: Jay Cassidy
Production designer: Lester Cohen
Music: Steven Stern

Sam Bicke: Sean Penn
Marie Bicke: Naomi Watts
Bonny: Don Cheadle
Jack Jones: Jack Thompson
Martin Jones: Brad Henke
Tom Ford: Nick Searcy
Julius Bicke: Michael Wincott
Harold Mann: Mykelti Williamson

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