The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Fantastic character acting, fantastically annoying character.

Released in 2004, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 15 Apr 2005 by Scott Morris
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Sean Penn's something of an oddity. Despite a long and varied career, he's been consistently mediocre with the odd side trip into rubbish. Okay, there's the odd glimer of genius in flicks like Sweet and Lowdown but the bulk of his work seems to have been somewhat low impact, and quite where this 'Brando of his generation' tag came from I've no idea. That is, until 2003's Mystic River when he suddenly worked out how this acting lark is supposed to go. At roughly the same time Kevin Bacon started getting really good too, so I assume it's some sort of bet between the two. Yes, that's probably what happened. His latest, The Assassination of Richard Nixon provides another sterling entry into the character study section of the career scrapbook, but it's a portrayal of such a weakwilled, blame-shirking jackass that it's difficult to care about the film.

At the risk of oversimplification, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a complete loser. Well, we say that. This is clearly marked as "inspired by a true story", which when babelfished out of marketing lingo means "if you're particularly lucky, the main character might have about the same name as the real one. Anything over and above is a bonus". As I've been trapped in DayJobHell? lately (rapidly approaching the twelfth straight day of eleven hour shifts, fatigue fans), my inclination to fact check this film is approximately equal to my inclination to cut my own heart out with a spoon. Which is to say not very inclined. Tangentially, this is also the reason for the unfocused rambling I've been doing of late, notably in this paragraph. Let's see if we can't get back on track after this paragraph break.

Sam Bicke is a man of principles. Hey, that's more like it. Maintain focus. Bicke doesn't want to have to lie to make a living. Fair enough, although you can't help but wonder why he's decided that the best way to pursue this path of righteousness is to become a furniture salesman. Aside from the slight clash of morals with the frankly not at all controversial or untrustworthy sales techniques expected by his boss Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), his near complete lack of interpersonal skills makes sales quite the wrong career choice. This is partly the cause of his misery.

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The other part being the separation and eventual divorce from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts. Can see his point). While he's quite clearly still besotted with Marie and his three kids, he's unable to pick up the stark signals that Marie wants nothing to do with him. This stems partly from aforementioned communication issues, and also because he's an absolute wet blanket of a man.

Bicke starts to rage against the machine; decrying the corruption of the American dream that creates a society where the little guy can't win, with Bicke the littlest of all guys. His plans to open a travelling tyre shop in a converted bus requires a bank loan to get things rolling; his inevitable rejection is blamed on racism because his partner Bonny (Don Cheadle) is black. Not once does he consider that a business plan that prominently features hand-drawn sketches of the prospective bus that would shame a four year old might have proven less than confidence inspiring.

He refuses to take any personal responsibility for his failings, instead fixating on Nixon as the pinnacle of oppression. This fact is rather cack-handedly beaten about the audiences head in a final reel intervention from Bicke's elder, substantially less pathetic brother Julius (Michael Wincott) is a manner that lacks the subtlety we might expect from director Niels Mueller, given that he previously wrote the pleasingly bright Tadpole.

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As a character study for Penn to flex his muscles in, Bicke's a great challenge. He's also an exceptionally irritating character to watch, also presenting a challenge but this time for the audience. You can't help but recognise Penn is acting to within an inch of his life, but Bicke is so fundamentally flawed a character that it's difficult to feel much for the guy when he's relatively sane at the start, let alone his hijack attempt which is just as stupendously flawed as the man himself.

The supporting cast might as well not have shown up, with the possible exception of Jack Thompson's overblown, blustery salesman which provides most of the actual life in this film. Superb as Cheadle and Watts typically are, with about eight lines each the actual actors chosen for these roles are nearly immaterial. Nah, this is the Sean Penn show throughout. No bad thing, but perhaps a slight waste of the hired talent. As to how believable a Descent Into Insanity? Bicke experiences, well, while Penn is certainly very convincing the thing he's mostly convincing us of is that Bicke is at best a whining ninny.

This isn't an enjoyable film. At times it's an exercise in frustration, which makes it somewhat odd that I say it's still worth watching. Simply, the quality of the acting is so high that it's probably worth suffering through the movie for, somewhat like previous Penn outing 21 Grams. Caveats aplenty then, but as examples of how to act there's few finer. Shame it doesn't translate into making an excellent film, but occasionally cookies crumble in such a fashion.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Niels Mueller
Cast list:
Sean Penn (Samuel Bicke)
Naomi Watts (Marie Bicke)
Don Cheadle (Bonny Simmons)
Jack Thompson (Jack Jones)
Michael Wincott (Julius Bicke)