Niels Mueller’s ‘The Assassination of Richard Nixon’ (2004)

11May05

This film is like a modern-day Taxi Driver….only not because the story takes place during 1974. Anyway, the plot of the film is similar to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: a man’s extreme social and physical isolation drive him to madness and violence.

I found this film quite compelling, probably because Sam Bicke’s thoughts about modern life are not so very different from my own. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a rather brilliant character study of an idealist crushed by his perceived imperfections of society.

The film’s assets:

  1. Sean Penn’s performance. I keep reading in various reviews that Sean Penn has proved himself to be one of the greatest actors of his generation. And while I thought that his performance in Mystic River was overly lauded by critics, he is quite good in this movie. In his carriage, his gestures, his facial expressions, Penn conveys this man’s social awkwardness and pathetic eagerness. But he does take it over-the-top at times.

Because of her admittedly impressive turn in 21 Grams, Naomi Watts has been receiving a lot of praise from critics. Besides the aforementioned performance, Watts has yet to really impress me with her acting talent. Her performances in this film and I [Heart] Huckabees are good but not great. Don Cheadle provides solid support as Bonny, but the real standout supporting performance is Jack Thompson as Jack Jones. He really manages to sell the sleazy salesman type.

The film’s offenses:

  1. The narration. Maybe I’m being too hard about this aspect of the film. The screenplay was based on a real events so perhaps the real Sam Byck sent such tapes to Leonard Bernstein. However, in a film format the narration becomes superfluous. The viewer can understand Sam’s state of mind and his reasons for doing what he does without the aid of the voice over. If Mueller wanted to include the tapes for historical accuracy, then perhaps including a brief narration over the final shot of Sam racing a toy airplane around his apartment would have been appropriate. The film-length narration, however, becomes annoying. And hearing Sean Penn say “maestro” really took me out of the film.
  2. The “zebra” scene. The credibility of this film rests heavily on Sean Penn and the screenplay’s ability to sell Sam as a pitiable human being. The scene in which Sam suggests that the Black Panthers change their name to the Zebras in order to expand their membership to white people is laugh-out-loud funny. It provides a light moment amongst many heavy ones, but it paints Sam’s idealism as laughable, which affects his credibility.

I cannot classify the screenplay as either an asset or an offense. Obviously, I had a few problems with the script—the narration and the inclusion of the “zebra” scene—and Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy seemed to be trying a little too hard to make Sam pathetic. But I cannot dismiss the screenplay. Without Sean Penn’s performance the screenplay might have resulted in a mediocre film, but it isn’t terrible enough for me to consider it an offense.

Speaking of 21 Grams, which features another fine performance by Sean Penn, Sam reminds me of Benicio del Toro’s character. When Jack Jordan kills Cristina’s husband and children with a truck he thought God had put into his hands, he has a crisis of faith and of self, wondering why God wanted him to kill people, and ultimately becomes self-destructive. Was he such a terrible person? Jack Jordan is a warning against brands of Christianity that emphasize God’s will over human will. While Sam Bicke does not seem to practice Christianity, he does stringently subscribe to another religion: the American religion. Bicke so completely believes in the American Dream that when he is unable to attain it, rather than blaming himself as Jack Jordan does, he blames the easiest target, Richard Nixon, but also becomes self-destructive.

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