Fact-based story about a disturbed office furniture salesman who in 1972 concocted a plot to kill then-President Nixon by hi-jacking a plane to fly over the White House to drop a gas bomb. At the start of the movie, the man is separated from his wife and stressed in his job where he is made the butt of jokes and is an under-performer. Attempts to get his brother's old tire business resurrected with a black partner is rejected by the banks. When he is officially served with divorce papers, everything comes apart and Richard Nixon's broken promises comes to represent all the evils that have come down on him. A news story about a pilot that landed a helicopter on the White House lawn gives him the idea for his attack. Bolting onto a Baltimore plane, he attempts the hi-jacking. Written by
John Sacksteder <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The assassination of my previous, unjustified view of Sean Penn
At least before watching Mystic River (2003) for the first time a few months ago, I never really paid much attention to Sean Penn. In fact, I was under the impression that I didn't really care for him. I haven't seen most of his films--I probably remembered him best from Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and as "that guy who was married to Madonna". I can't say exactly why I thought I didn't like him (it was one of those things where you remember the judgment but not why you made it), but that's probably one of the reasons I haven't seen most of his films. Well, that's going to change, because based on the three I've watched in the last few months--Mystic River, I Am Sam (2001) and now this one--Penn is quickly on his way to becoming one of my favorite actors. He's probably already my favorite "versatile actor", because I almost always prefer actors who have strong, unique personalities/dispositions that tend to dominate (some would say "trample") any role they tackle. But Penn is able to meld himself to roles while still bringing something unique to them. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is no exception. His performance here is spot on, perfectly capturing a tragic and ultimately disturbing "everyman".
Comparisons of The Assassination of Richard Nixon to Taxi Driver (1976) are justified and inevitable. Both concern a man who is a bit of an outcast, both with an acute awareness of politics and the persons whom they consider fellow outcasts, both trying to make their place in the world, both continually being knocked down from the attempt, and both eventually cracking and taking similarly drastic measures against an abstraction of those they feel have wronged them. There are also equally fine performances from great actors, there is equally unique artistry in the technical elements, and both successfully stress an atmosphere of "low class grit".
But while Taxi Driver is also a masterpiece and will long be one of the cinematic benchmarks of its era, The Assassination of Richard Nixon has a number of important differences that make it clear that it's not a "rip-off". For one, it is based on a thinly veiled true story, where the major "plot" events are very close to the film (the true story is of Samuel Byck, making this one of the odder examples of fictionalizing a name to distance a film from reality--Penn's character is named Samuel Bicke).
More importantly, Bicke, although he has problems, does not see himself initially as belonging to or being obsessed with a subculture. He's relatively normal, and his desires in the film are all about correcting his "forced" deviations from normality. In a nutshell, Bicke is a guy with low self-esteem/a lack of self-confidence who keeps getting the raw end of the deal (at least in his mind). Complicating things a bit, although Bicke is relatively normal, he sees many normal kinds of social interactions--like workplace relations, politicians to their constituencies, and even romance--as a kind of "game" or charade that's usually played unfairly, with acquiescence to immoral tactics. Bicke wants things to be fair and moral; he wants people to be kind and understanding towards one another--at least per his understandings of these things. Because he doesn't play the game in the normal way, he keeps getting kicked out of it.
Thus, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is primarily a tale of a "loser" trying to put his failed marriage back together, trying to find a job he can tolerate, trying to find friends who will empathize with him, and so on. None of these attempts quite work, but the game trudges on. Bicke has to eat and pay for housing. So even though the game keeps kicking him out, he can't be out entirely; he has to keep contributing Monopoly money, so to speak. Obviously, this is a recipe for some kind of disaster if there aren't changes in the equation. The disaster finally comes, presenting the film's fantastic climax.
Penn is excellent at the slight exaggerations needed for an everyman "loser" to end up in the state of mind Bicke ends up in. He's also a master of what we could call a "dual performance". The first performance is what Bicke literally says and does. The second performance is the always-present silent dialogue of Bicke's mind. Through body language, tone of voice, small actions and such, Penn is able to communicate "what Bicke is really thinking". Other actors in the film are good at this, too, including Naomi Watts, who plays Bicke's estranged wife; Jack Thompson, who plays his hucksterish boss; and Don Cheadle, who plays his increasingly reluctant only friend. There's an entire, unspoken, secondary film occurring here--one that emphasizes both the implicature and the charade of everyday public social interactions.
First-time feature director Niels Mueller achieves a subtle unbalancing through the artful, regular use of hand-held cameras. The hand-held work doesn't dominate so much as to become distracting, but it's just "shaky" enough to add to the sense of unease. Also unusual is Mueller's approach to montages. There are a number of sequences with increasingly fast cuts that are perfectly constructed to suggest time passing, monotony, frustration, impatience and so on. Mueller always gives us just the right amount of information, always leaves each shot on screen for the exact right length of time.
Although some people have objected to the film on the grounds of creating sympathy for or painting a glorified picture of a guy who was basically a psycho, that's a way too simplified view of the film, its plot and its historical background. This is a finely made artwork that provides all kinds of insight into "human nature" and society. It makes no simplistic arguments.
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