The Assassination Of Richard Nixon

4 stars


15th April 2005

I can't lay claim to being Sean Penn's biggest fan - anyone humourless enough to defend Jude Law deserves to be taken down a few notches in my book - but I can grudgingly accept that he's pretty good at this acting lark. While I wouldn't necessarily label him as 'our generation's De Niro' as some people have, he's rather adept at playing the emotionally fucked up everyman - see 21 Grams and Mystic River as some fine examples - and he's at it again in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on the true story of the man who refused to play the shitty hand society kept dealing him.

Penn is Sam Bicke, an office furniture salesman with a failed marriage and three kids behind him, and a porn-tastic 'tache keeping his top lip warm. Unfortunately, he's something of a lily-livered schmuck, who lets his boss walk all over him, while he so desperately clings to his staunch morals and sense of self-righteousness. As his relationship with his ex-wife falls apart and his corrupt boss's aggressive marketing begins to stick in his craw, Bicke's mental state slowly starts to deteriorate until he eventually reaches breaking point and attempts to fly a plane into the White House, taking out the puke-faced bullshit merchant of the title in the process. What's incredible is that while the transformation between put-upon average Joe to gun-waving mentalist is inevitable, Penn's performance is so mesmerising, you never quite see the join.

Bicke is a fascinating character indeed. Behind his nervous smile and dodgy face furniture, there's a firecracker waiting to blow -you'll find yourself sympathising with someone so helpless and trusting, but the occasional glimpse into his beady little eyes reveals something much more sinister bubbling underneath the surface. When his honest approach to salesmanship leads to him getting the sack, Bicke stares dead-eyed at Nixon on TV before exploding in an unexpected tirade of abuse at Tricky Dicky - considering that thus far he's barely raised his jittery voice above a whisper, it's a shockingly powerful moment. Perhaps the De Niro comparisons aren't too wide of the mark after all - Bicke shares the rage and twisted morality of Taxi Driver's anti-hero, as well as the majority of the letters of his surname.

There's some serious talent on board here. If you can see past Penn's monolithic performance, then you'll appreciate a fine supporting cast from the likes of Don Cheadle as his friend and future business partner, Naomi Watts as his fetching ex-wife and Michael Wincott aka Top Dollar as his brother. Director Niels Mueller has never registered on my radar before but this is certainly accomplished stuff, interspersing Bicke's eventual breakdown with shots of Nixon lying his way through the Watergate scandal. The nail-biting ending, in which Bicke attempts to hijack the plane and fly it into Nixon's gigantic forehead, is handled expertly as Mueller transforms what is essentially a tried-and-tested scene into something really quite special - you could have cracked a walnut between my butt cheeks I was that tense. On the other side of the coin, there's gentle moments of humour to be found which don't detract from the overall feeling of impending disaster; Bicke's suggestion to the local Black Panthers that they change their names to "The Zebras" to double their membership is funny, yes, but tells you all you need to know about his fast deteriorating mental state.

Ultimately, whether you enjoy The Assassination of Richard Nixon comes down to your tolerance of Penn and his persistence in playing the dumped on guy on the street - I could certainly see how Bicke's continual whining on the topics of principles and ethics could become something of a chore after a while, and that's certainly not going to help the movie's case. But bite your lip, because this is genuinely a powerhouse performance from Penn - hell, he almost managed to convince me that such a moral crusade might not be such a bad plan. If nothing else, The Assassination of Richard Nixon serves as a stark reminder that even the quietest, most unassuming of men all have a point beyond which they will not be pushed; as Bicke himself puts it, "I am but one man, but I will not go quietly."

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