Film Reviews

THE ASSASINATION OF RICHARD NIXON (Victoria)

By • Dec 29th, 2004 •

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

QUOTE: Penn’s performance commands attention.

I see more movies than I review. If you see as many movies as I do, you become anesthetized to bad acting. As long as actors say their lines and don’t make too many faces, you accept it as standard movie acting. Then along comes a performance like Charlize Theron’s in MONSTER. I was emailing back and forth with a fan and she wrote: “No matter what Theron does in the future, we’ll always have her performance in MONSTER.” Yes, I agree. Theron was brilliant. As Roger Ebert wrote, and I agree, it was the greatest cinematic performance of all time.

This year there are five terrific performances: Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake,” Anne Reid in “The Mother,” Jim Caviezel in “The Passion of the Christ,” Christian Bale in “The Machinist” and Sean Penn in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”

THE MACHINIST and THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON are both small, dark films hardly getting the kind of exposure lavished on THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE AVIATOR. While Bill Murray is being hailed as an acting genius, these two performances by Bale and Penn are remarkable in their subtlety. Even Murray would agree his praise for THE LIFE AQUATIC is overblown compared to these performances.

In 1974 Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) decided to assassinate President Richard Nixon. The President was lying about Watergate and Bicke became so obsessed with Nixon’s deceit that he decided to hijack a plane and blow up the White House.

THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON is the story of what led Bicke to his far-flung plan. Of course, it was not based on anything Nixon did personally to him or Bicke’s political philosophy. It was an expression of Bicke’s failure to live the American Dream.

Bicke has been newly hired as an office furniture salesman. He is separated from his waitress wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and their two children. Marie has moved on and really wants no part of Bicke. His boss Jack Jones (Jack Thompson) gives him Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People” as a primer for selling furniture. He has to follow certain rules spelled out on tapes. He knows it is a bunch of crap but his boss is a bully he must placate.

Bicke had a contentious relationship with his brother and left the family tire business. He now wants to start a mobile tire shop with his black mechanic friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). He’s applied for financial assistance through a small-business aid plan but is caught up in a bureaucracy that is not interested in helping him. He eventually lays blame at the feet of Richard Nixon. Bonny, on the other hand, is not surprised.

First-time director Niels Mueller and his co-screenwriter Kevin Kennedy understand this character’s frustration and gradual desperation. Bicke’s crummy environment and lack of respect are catalysts that push him towards placing blame on Nixon.

It is Penn’s searing performance that beats through the hollow lower-middle class terrain meticulously recreated here. How in the world can Penn relate to this man’s sense of emptiness and frustration? If you want to see a little man’s steady decline while slowly getting pushed up against a wall, watch Penn intensely inhabit the role. He shows us Bicke’s inner thought processes. Like MYSTIC RIVER, Penn holds our interest by bringing emotional chaos to a complicated character and allowing us to understand his actions.

(Charlize, I understand you want to do several more “I’m still really beautiful” roles before you return to acting, but at your age and with your fierce dedication, you have the opportunity to galvanize the profession by forcing your peers to start acting for their paychecks.)


Credits:
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

Cast:
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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