Sunday 3 April 2005

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) - ickleReview (cinema)

Drama starring Sean Penn as Samuel Bicke, a flailing, failing office furniture salesman, separated from his wife and kids, bullied by his boss and disowned by his family. Reminiscent of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, Penn's demise is a little more subtle; his chosen target of retribution a lot more ambitious. The credits claim that this "dramatisation" is based on real events, on a failed plane hijack in 1974. The viewing is good; but scrutinized objectively (as I keep reiterating in movie after movie) a little over-familiar and Hollywoodized: the plot development and structure tread a path that is well worn and long in need of repair.

What is impressive in this period piece is its displacement of contemporary themes in what now constitutes a historical context. The suburban breakdown is still being manifested by gunmen's suicidal rampages in Littleton, Atlanta, and, most recently, Minnesota - sometimes by kids, sometimes by once respectable, middle-class suburbanite office-workers. Bicke's plan to fly a plane into the Whitehouse is painfully relevant to 9/11; his madness disturbingly plausible; his worry-bead chain of bad luck stories immediately recognizable.

The title at first seems misleading; but Nixon is a contant, menacing presence in the film. Bicke's boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson) marvels at Nixon as a master salesman: he sold the American people a lie in 1968 when he stood on the presidential ticket of ending the war in Vietnam. Of course, he then sent thousands more US troops to their deaths. Then in 1972 he stood on the same promise and won again. Nixon figures in the background on television, making speeches and denials, false sales-pitches and truth-pledges; just as Jack Jones and his furniture salesmen, and Bicke's brother, the tyre dealer, lie about the great offers they are spinning for their customers. Nixon becomes the target for Bicke's resentment and anger: towards his boss, his cold-shouldered wife (Naomi Watts), his failure to obtain a small business loan, and the racist treament which he believes his friend and former colleague, the mechanic Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), suffers without fighting back. These afflictions are more passively tolerated by Richard Ford's iconic narrator, Frank Bascombe, in his novels The Sportswriter (1986) and Independence Day (1995), set almost a generation later.

The flashback structure is an old trick: we see Penn preparing for the assassination attempt; then we see him recording the confession tapes a few weeks earlier, addressed bizarrely to Leonard Bernstein; then we see him a year before, at the beginning of his new job as an office furniture salesman. It falls down because it accelerates too fast during his breakdown: we don't see how his placid acceptance of his shitty life suddenly turns violent and vengeful.

Nugget: Penn's performance is impressive, even if fledgling Director Niels Mueller does allow him to indulge in a few Miramax Oscar moments of rage and despair (a la Mystic River). He even manages not to shut his raincoat in the boot of the car (twice), when it seems as if he had.

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