Friday, April 08, 2005


THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON is a movie about the psychological breakdown of a man named Samuel Bicke. He is decent working class man pushed to the limit by a series of misfortunes. His wife leaves him when he cannot provide for her and their daughters. The bank turns him down for a business loan largely because his partner is black. He is the butt of jokes and criticism at work. He feels denigrated and de-humanised at every turn, and comes to think of himself as a modern-day wage-slave. For some bizarre reason, which is never convincingly explained, he sees Richard Nixon as the ultimate cause of his downfall – the man who sold him a vision of the American Dream that turned out to be a lie. In a bizarre turn, Bicke decides to take a hold of his life, and become more than just another face-less nobody. He will hijack a plane and crash land it into the White House, thus killing the President.

Where the film succeeds in casting three great actors, Sean Penn,
Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, in the leads. Each gives a technically pitch-perfect performance, although because of flaws in the concept of the story, I found their performances ultimately uninvolving. I also think that the film beautifully captures the absurdity of the man on the edge of society: Sam Bicke is a tragi-comic character. Nowhere is this shown more clearly than we he tries to join the Black Panthers, who are understandably mystified and insulted that he should want to join. Bicke argues his case for allowing white membership as follows: “Zebras. You see, they're black, and they're white. The Black Panthers become The Zebras, and membership will double.”

However, for me this movie ultimately fails. The title, the fact that it stars Sean Penn and the plot summary that references a suicidal terrorist mission, sell the movie as a tense political thriller with contemporary relevance. However, viewers may find themselves feeling short-changed. Terrorism and the corruption of Richard Nixon are never really discussed here. Instead, it is the process by which a man becomes dehumanised to the point of considering extreme action of any kind that is the real subject matter. The Samuel Bicke character could have expressed his frustration at society in any number of ways. For instance, he could have become a lone gunman like Michael Douglas’ character in the movie FALLING DOWN, hitting out at anyone who came across his path. To my mind, there is something crass in the current climate in using the hijacking a plane that is intended to crash into the White House as a sort of background, substitutable plot device.

Overall, I found that despite some technically brilliant performances by the leads and the rare flash of black humour, this movie had nothing new or interesting to say about the disenfranchisement of working men in corporate America. It certainly had very little to say about terrorism. And worst of all, because it re-treads old ground, it was a very dull movie to watch.

THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON showed at Toronto 2004 and is released in the UK today.

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