The Assassination of Richard Nixon
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Sean Penn is larger than life--at least in his own eyes. He thinks he can do anything. And he nearly can. In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, it's all Sean all the time. He completely inhabits the character of Sam Bicke, a Willie Loman turned Travis Bickle. It is too bad that he is stuck in a film by a director who is not as smart.

Let me correct that. Assassination is Niels Mueller's directorial debut. Before, he scripted Tadpole and Sweet Nothings, which doesn't seem like much of a resume, but he got an impressive lineup of producers, from Alfonso Cuaron and Jorge Vergara (Y tu mama tambien) to Leonardo DiCaprio and Alexander Payne, plus a high-quality cast: Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts, and, of course, Penn. Clearly, the man knows how to pitch.

On paper Assassination looks like a cinch: a pastiche of little shards of broken American dreams, washed and rinsed to fit this moment in history to a T. It is chartable on a cocktail napkin: "Willy Loman + Travis Bickle = Sam Bicke = Mohammad Atta. Nixon = Bush. Vietnam = Iraq." And (an issue that looms large for Mr. Mueller) it's Inspired by a True Story! Sorry, I seem to be retelling Robert Altman's The Player. But there are 10,000 stories like this in the Naked City of L.A.

The "true story" aspect is further complicated by Bicke's off-screen monologue as he dictates his confessions on a tape addressed to Leonard Bernstein, who would later use the story in his short-lived 1990 musical Assassins. The film doesn't mention it. Because a Sean Penn film is supposed to reach a wider audience than an off-Broadway musical, the issue of why Bernstein is the addressee is left hanging in the air. At least his music would improve the perfectly awful portentous score; but perhaps Bernstein would have been too ironic for Mueller.

The story itself concerns idealistic Sam Bicke, who is pained by the Lies that permeate everyday life and the Big Fat Liars Who Tell Them. By the time the film opens, he has already lost his job at his brother's tire store and been separated from his wife (Watts) and his adorable daughters. In short order, he fails as an office supply salesman (just as at his brother's, he resents having to lie to customers), gets divorce papers from his wife, and fails to get a bank loan for the tire-selling business he tried to start with his only friend, Bonny (Don Cheadle). Actually, it gets worse: too impatient to wait for the loan, he uses his brother's credit line to buy a supply of tires, which has unpleasant consequences. Who is to blame for all this? Richard Milhouse Nixon, of course, who, according to Bicke's boss, is the most successful salesman, and to Bicke, the biggest liar of them all. And so RMN must die.

The transformation of a Willy Lomanesque character (actually, Arthur Miller's was much sharper than this) into Travis Bickle is a touching one, and Sean Penn inhabits the character completely. He is such a good, serious loser--he really believes that All You Need is Honesty--and Penn stays in character without resorting to the tics and tricks of I Am Sam. He has a remarkable range, from high notes to low ones, and though it is never in doubt that Bicke will fail in whatever he is doing, there is not a hint of a happy ending, and you cannot help rooting for him. Before last October, I would have called it a perfect Boston Red Sox fan movie. This command performance gets some support from the cast and next to nothing from the ponderous script and Mueller's heavy-handed direction.

Mueller may well be identifying with his character more than a director/writer should. He seems to think the fact that Sam Bicke really existed and indeed attempted to assassinate the president is an ultimate validation of his beliefs. And so, instead of trying to reveal the artistic truth about Bicke, the plot struggles from scene to scene, mirroring his real-life failures (or so the director claims). Because it is true.

But the only true thing that kept me going was the despair in Sean Penn's face and body. After a dinner with Bonny's family, Bonny's little son is sent to bed, and he gives goodnight hugs to his parents and their guest. The way Penn holds on to this kid--the extra hug he gives him--tells you all you need to know about his character's terrifying loneliness. We have all been losers in one thing or another (with some reason, writing has been described as a loser's game), but it has been a long time since someone has played it as well as Penn does in this film. This is the real thing, not a wine-and-cheese California comedy like Sideways (no reflection on Paul Giamatti, who was a gem in that film). Had it not been for Penn's performance, permeating the screen with heartfelt pain, I woulda been outta there in five minutes flat.

Like many of us, Mueller is undone by the same thing that thralls him. By mechanically connecting the dots between Nixon and Bush, between Vietnam and Iraq, he loses track of social changes of the last thirty years. This is not to say there are no modern-day Sam Bickes taking aim at Dubya on their TVs, with Al Franken ranting in the background. But not only would today's Bicke be unable to get this close to an airplane (I'm not giving anything away: it is in the opening scene); nowadays, a combination of his outbursts would have put him in some kind of stress-relief or anger-management program and most likely have him so severely medicated that he would not have even made it to the airport. There is more than one dimension to oppression.

Mueller has another item on his agenda that he does not reveal until the closing frames. For some reason, he needs to say that the measure of Bicke as the ultimate loser is that not only did he never succeed with his plans but that his name is practically unknown today, thus ascribing his hero a Herostratus complex. That's the kind of a directorial U-turn that should by any rule get a ticket. It is not immediately clear to me that fame is much on Bicke's mind; if it is on Mueller's, he had better get himself a Sean Penn every time, for it is only Penn who makes the film worthwhile.

[rating: 2.5 of 4 stars]

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Movie Web site: The Assassination of Richard Nixon



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