The Assassination of Richard Nixon Review
From the emotionless one man killing machine Paul Kersey in the Death Wish films to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, cinema has historically been attracted by the psychotic outsider, the loner who takes it upon themselves to make a statement by taking the law into their own hands. For his feature debut, director Mueller adapts the true story of Sam Bick, a small time office furniture salesman who in 1972 attempted to highjack a plane and fly it into the Whitehouse, in order to kill President Nixon.
Bick is an everyman. The anonymous white collar nine-to-fiver who sells leatherette office chairs for a lousy commission. Taken under the wing of sales supremo Jack Jones he is given self-improvement audio cassettes and books in order to guide him to sales perfection. Bick, however, soon finds himself disgusted with the deception that comes with the job and finds himself increasingly alienated from his work colleagues, friends, and his separated wife and children. Bick’s increasing paranoia and frustration soon widens to anger with America and its leaders, particularly at the US’ involvement in Vietnam, until he finally decides to take action, and do something that will forever make him remembered.
Mueller’s film, which takes place in 1972, is clearly making a statement about contemporary American events. There are obvious parallels between Bick’s assassination attempt and the attacks on 9-11, and Bick’s disgust at America’s involvement in an unwinable war on the other side of the world has a clear comparison to the war in Iraq. The problem is these links rarely go any further than a superficial similarity; Mueller doesn’t seem to be saying anything more radical than politicians can’t be trusted and some people have always wanted to kill those in charge. Hardly radical thinking or something we didn’t know already; witness what happened to Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Bobby Kennedy or even Ronald Reagan.
Mueller’s film is a low key affair, shunning the stylistic overload often associated with eager first time directors desperate to make their individual mark on the industry, wisely sitting back and allowing Sean Penn’s brilliant performance to take centre stage. To my mind this is Penn’s best performance since Carlito’s Way, avoiding the showy hysterics of 21 Grams and delivering a wonderfully restrained portrayal of an insignificant man attempting to make an impact on history, bottling up his anger and frustration with modern living until breaking point. His Bick is a lonely soul, physically and emotionally as awkward with his customers and work colleagues as he is with his estranged wife (Naomi Watts, again paired with Penn after 21 Grams).
Penn also brings some wonderful and much needed moments of humour and compassion to a character that could all too easily be portrayed as a one dimensional psychotic with whom the audience couldn’t care less about. The scenes where Bick confides in his garage mechanic friend Bonny (played by Don Cheadle), seemingly the own person he can relate to without defensive anger, are genuinely touching; and there is a wonderful and very funny scene where Bick attempts to convince the Black Panther revolutionary movement to change their “black only” inclusion policy and become a multi-racial group called Zebra.
And yet, regardless of the great performance at the heart of the film I came away distinctly disappointed by a “Richard Nixon”. Essentially the structure and central premise give little room for any significant surprises and the over-riding feeling is that the film has nothing new to say about either madness or why people decide to do something as drastic as attempt to assassinate a political leader. Taxi Driver for example worked because the assassination plot line was a smaller piece of the puzzle when it came to understanding Travis Bickle’s frustration with society and his need to save the young prostitute Iris. With Bick we know very little about him aside from the fact he hates his job, his boss, and the government ….hardly something that singles him out from millions of other people in the US or the rest of the world – and certainly doesn’t go any way to explaining how someone gets to the point where they snap.
In “Richard Nixon”, both title and the flashback structure indicates where we will end up by the end of the movie leaving a sense of waiting for the inevitable to happen and draining the film of any sense of ambiguousness. Not that the film has any designs on being a thriller, it seems quite content with it’s aspirations as a small scale character piece, but by knowing where Penn’s character will end up by the end up I found myself becoming impatient and a little bored. By the end of the film Bick is just another gut toting cinema-crazy, stuttering, wild eyed and no more three dimensional than the average Dennis Hopper or Gary Oldman Hollywood rent-a-villain. It’s an immense shame as Penn has done much to create sympathy with the character in the early scenes. In fact the only real moment of sadness and empathy for Bick in the latter part of the film, and one of the finest moments, arrives at the climax where Mueller signs off with news reports showing Cheadle and Watts going about their daily lives, oblivious to the TV news dramatically describing Bick’s moment of glory. Even those closest to him have consigned him to anonymity, his one important political stand immediately forgotten.
“Richard Nixon” makes a real attempt to be both gripping character drama, and political comment on the current state of America. It comes somewhere between the two and never really succeeds completely as either, feeling too simplistic and one note to really add anything to a subject so better handled in a film such as Taxi Driver. Without Sean Penn you feel as though this small scale movie would have been all but ignored, and it’s his illuminating portrayal of a working man unraveling that really strengthens the film, particularly in the early scenes. The over-riding feeling, however, is of an average film centered around an excellent performance…..and frankly that isn’t enough to sustain interest in Sam Bick or the motivations for his crimes.