The Assassination of Richard Nixon Review
Set in a seventies backdrop and with a title like 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', you could be forgiven for mistaking this debut film from director Niels Mueller to be a political thriller, a labyrinthine conspiracy potboiler harking back to America's glorious postclassical era. This assumption could not be further from the truth however, for the film emerges as a thoughtful and restrained character drama which stands as one of the more cerebral releases to come out of Hollywood this year. The setting is America 1974, and we follow the misfortunes of Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn). Bicke is an awkward man, estranged from his successful brother and isolated from his wife and children. A man with few prospects, he lives in a dingy rented apartment and spends his days as an office furniture salesman under constant scrutiny from his boss who never wastes an opportunity to castigate his selling capabilities and his lack of social grace. As the film plays out we see Bicke listlessly stumble from one body blow to another. His marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts) is as good as dead, but he can't let it go. He dreams of leaving his unhappy professional life behind and starting up his own business with his friend Benny (Don Cheadle), but bureaucracy and red tape hold back the bank loan he desperately needs and keeps Sam in limbo. Ultimately Sam looks to strike out against the system which he believes has let him down, becoming more obsessive and erratic as he looks to channel his anger and frustration. Richard Nixon becomes the figurehead of Bicke's obsession, a symbol from which to strike and free himself from the faceless society he believes has sapped his ability to succeed and become somebody. It doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs on paper and it isn't. This certainly isn't a first date kind of movie, but the unrelentingly bleak tone and deliberately measured pacing can't help but get under the skin of the viewer and compel. To compare it to 'Taxi Driver' may be a little ambitious, but while it certainly doesn't match the riveting intensity of Scorsese's classic we are still in the same ball park here. As 'Taxi Driver' was quintessentially De Niro, this is unquestionably Sean Penn's film all the way. In a time when blockbusters rule the box-office and the mavericks of the seventies have long since sacrificed artistic integrity in favour of sleep-walking through clichéd cinematic abominations, Penn stands as quite possibly the finest character actor contemporary Hollywood cinema has to offer. Penn is astounding here and more or less single-handedly elevates the film where it could have teetered on the laborious. His is a demanding role as Bicke dominates the screen, relegating all other characters to little more than cameo appearances. The film is so tightly bound to Sam's character that he permeates every scene. The range of Penn's acting is given full reign as he expertly conveys the complexities of Bicke's character, eliciting in equal turns sympathy, resentment, accordance and disgust from the audience. Watts and Cheadle cope admirably with small supporting roles but the only other character the viewer can get their teeth into is that of Bick's boss Jack Jones. This is thanks in no small point to a superb turn by Jack Thompson who more than holds his own in his scenes with Penn. If we are being critical, the brilliance of Penn's performing goes some way to mask the limitations of the film as a whole. Once one has adjusted to its funeral pace, it's easy to become engrossed in Penn to the detriment of the story. Sit back objectively once the credits are rolling and analyse what you just saw and just perhaps in the hands of a less capable actor this could well have been a stinker. The film has a tendency to meander along, without ever definitively grasping the situation. Of course a lot of this has to do with the fascinating, but challenging real life subject matter. The film builds up to a glorious failure; it's a film about being nobody and ultimately achieving nothing of meaning. Of course this could be said of many of the classic seventies films the film tries to ape, but history and reputation forgives them, as I have a tendency to forgive this movie. In its defence, this is a film that is as far away from conventional Hollywood standards as one could imagine and for that alone, deserves some slack. The film revels in the little details, the slight yet impeccable portrayals of an everyman's mundane existence and his teetering on the edge of sanity. Muller handles the material well, and the intelligent dialogue and brooding atmosphere make this an absorbing watch despite its restrictions. Although at times it may seem like hard work, it's rewarding enough to persevere with, and I'd take this over sanitised commercial fodder any day. Ultimately this is by no means a film for everyone. Those looking for an adrenaline filled race against time action adventure would be advised to give it a miss. Similarly anybody expecting a cathartic release from the put upon everyman in the vein of 'Falling Down' may find it hard going. It certainly isn't the full package by any means, on occasion it lets itself get bogged down in its own world-weary cynicism and a more assured directorial hand may have seen fit to elevate the tone on occasion to offer variety. It is however, a daring and important film which marks Muller out as a director to watch, and cements Sean Penn as one of the leading lights of his generation. This understated little movie is worth searching out if you need a breath of fresh air from the Hollywood norm.