Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

21. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Dir: Niels Mueller

In 2004, Niels Mueller's directorial debut 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' quietly slipped out to the complete indifference of the public and then disappeared off the radar with barely any award nominations at all. This was a major oversight which has yet to be rectified. Despite some initial good reviews, this brilliant little film continues to be consistently underrated and underseen. Given its grim plotline and modest budget, it's perhaps unsurprising that 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' proved a hard sell to mainstream audiences. But those with a passion for independent cinema, especially the hard-hitting counter-culture movies of the 70s, should definitely seek this one out.

Loosely based on the true story of failed assassin Samuel Bycke (here called Bicke), 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' is set during the 1970s and Richard Nixon's second term as President. In order to set the appropriate mood, Mueller's script and style deliberately echoes the style of 70s outsider films such as 'The Conversation' (1974) and 'Taxi Driver' (1976). A major criticism of 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' has been that it resembles the latter too strongly, suggesting that Mueller has over-reaching ambitions to make the natural successor to Scorcese's gritty classic. While 'Taxi Driver' certainly seems to be an influence, however, Mueller treats it as a reference point for audiences rather than an overriding template. The lead character of Samuel Bicke is certainly a different beast from Travis Bickle, even if their surnames are only seperated by one letter.

The title 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' is deliberately ironic, since Bicke never comes anywhere close to seeing through his assassination plot. Nixon's name in the title is also misleading, since the film is significantly more focused on the personal breakdown of one individual than it is on political issues. Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is an idealistic, moral man who believes passionately in honesty and equality and is disillusioned by life's demands that he stray from these values. His job at a furniture store is compromised by his beliefs as his grotesquely smarmy boss (Jack Thompson) tries unsuccessfully to mould him into a slick, unscrupulous salesman through the use of self-help literature. Bicke is attempting to start up his own mobile tire business with best friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) but the lengthy beaurocratic process is more than he can bear. Also weighing heavily on Bicke's mind is his estranged wife's (Naomi Watts) attempts to move on despite Bicke's desperation to reconcile. All these factors fuel Bicke's general rage at the state of his country and the dominance of dishonesty and avarice, of which Richard Nixon becomes a totemic figure. This obsessive anger at his President's encapsulation of everything he despises provides Bicke with an outlet to vent his bottled-up rage.

As Bicke, Sean Penn is spellbinding. Penn has long been one of the greatest American actors of the last few decades but, while he is often mentioned in the same breath as Brando or De Niro, few seem willing to give him his dues and rate him as highly as those sacred touchstones. His astonishing range makes Penn more than worthy and one need only watch the likes of 'Milk' (2008), 'Sweet and Lowdown' (1999) and 'Mystic River' (2003) to realise this. Those roles have brought him great acclaim but he gives a performance to equal them in 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon'.

For almost the entire 95 minute runtime of 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', we do not leave Bicke's side, experiencing his world only through his eyes. During this time, Penn beautifully essays the man's transition from weak-willed emotional impotence through mounting frustration to obsessive madness. The film opens with the insane Bicke recording tapes addressed to his favourite composer, Leonard Bernstein, detailing his plans for Nixon and the story leading up to them. This flashback structure immediately clues the audience in to the fact that Bicke is headed for madness and, in this knowledge, we watch with morbid fascination to see what events could have lead him to this sorry state. Those who find the idea of spending an hour and a half watching a man destroy himself will be pleased to hear that Mueller's script and Penn's performance bring much needed quirky humour to the grim mix. This mostly arises from Bicke's naivety, best displayed in two scenes: one in which he tries to join the Black Panthers and another in which he acts out his idea of the perfect sales technique to a bemused civil servant. Penn also reaches crushing depths of pathos, such as the scene in which his desperate need for love and understanding are evident in his prolonged embrace of another family's child as if it were his own offspring.

As is the case with everything in Bicke's life, the climax is an anticlimax. This is deliberate but the abortive nature of Bicke's final acts disappointed some viewers who felt they'd been cheated out of a payoff. But a lengthy climactic action sequence would undoubtedly have seemed tacked on and at odds with everything 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' had achieved up to that point. Instead, the ending is exactly what you would expect given everything that has come before: a bungled, desperate and tragic mess of panicked collapse. But as the credits rolled, I felt no sense of disappointment but rather the excitement of having discovered a hidden gem. To paraphrase the old Chinese proverb, the journey had been the reward.

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