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January 2005

By Julian Roman

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Distributor: ThinkFilm
Director: Niels Mueller
Producers: Alfonso Cuaron and Jorge Vergara
Screenwriter: Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki
Composer: Steven Stern
Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad Henke


   

 

   

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is the disturbing true story of Sam Bicke, an unhinged man who attempted to hijack an airplane and crash it into the White House. The events in the film took place in 1974, but the severity of the recent terrorist attacks adds a significant feeling of uneasiness while watching it. Director Niels Mueller and star Sean Penn, in another magnificent performance, do not invoke any sympathy for Bicke. They skillfully tread the line of exploring this man's descent into madness while acknowledging that many of his problems were legitimate. Bicke saw himself as the average guy being oppressed by the elite. He had an unrealistic sense of virtue that prevented him from existing normally in society. The slow unraveling of his life coincided with the Watergate hearings of then President Richard Nixon. Bicke began to see Nixon as the embodiment of the world's problems and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Bicke believed that America was essentially an unjust place. He readily identified with the people he thought were downtrodden, especially blacks and the poor. His problem was that he couldn't manifest his feelings in a constructive way. He would let his feelings stew then alienate everyone around him with his behavior. Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle co-star as his ex-wife and best friend. He makes their lives very difficult. They put up with him for as long as possible before cutting him loose as well. This separation from his friends and family progresses his delusional state, leading Bicke to become homicidal in his intentions.

It's fascinating to see the subtle change from disaffected man to dangerous individual. Sean Penn makes the transition look effortless. What's amazing about his performance is the bottled-up rage. You can see the anger behind every polite smile and furtive glance. Just the look on Sean Penn's face as Sam Bicke is something to behold. He embodies the character utterly. Great performances are highly nuanced. Everything that Bicke does and says is unique to the character. There's not a shred of Sean Penn anywhere to be seen. The man is just a phenomenal actor, truly one of the all-time greats.

The one serious flaw of the film is the exposition of the supporting characters. Bicke is obviously the center of the narrative, but his wife and best friend needed to be further explored. Why would these people ever put up with such a malcontent? It leads you to believe that there is a great deal of back story that wasn't told. They are portrayed as good people that once loved Sam Bicke. What happened to their relationship? How did it evolve to such a drastic point? These questions aren't addressed and it leaves a significant gap in the plot.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is the first film from Niels Mueller. What an auspicious debut. This is a tricky story to tell and he deftly handles the grave subject matter. Granted, he did have a top notch cast, but his achievement here should not be overlooked. Let's hope his next film will be as good.