Sean Penn is rarely off the mark these days. Time and again, he makes an indelible impression, whether it’s as a single dad with the intellectual capacity of a seven-year-old or the faded local thug whose favourite daughter is murdered.
When the credits fade, each character’s essence remains burnt into the screen. Okay, yes, I’m a fan.
In The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, based on a true story, Penn portrays an everyman-turned-presidential assassin.
Only, as you might gather since Richard Nixon died of natural causes only a few years ago,
Sam Bicke never succeeded in assassinating the US president. Bicke’s assassination attempt was soon overshadowed by the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation and forgotten.
We first meet Sam Bicke on the way to his date with destiny, a man seemingly filled with purpose, direction and reason.
Flashback to one year earlier and we meet a different Sam: a 44-year-old idealist down on his luck but with a new job as a salesman in Jack Jones’s furniture store.
Jones, played by our Jack Thompson, plies Sam with self-help tapes to guide him in the insincere art of salesmanship, only Sam can’t bear to lie and his strong sense of honesty and justice is severely tested every time he tries.
Also, he hates how his estranged wife Marie (played by Penn’s 21 Grams co-star Naomi Watts) has to wear short skirts to keep her gig as a waitress. But things will change.
Sam plans on starting a mobile tyre repair business with his best friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) once his bank loan comes through.
All the while Nixon blabs on the TV about how great everything is for America and how Vietnam will be won.
But when Marie sends through divorce papers and the business plan implodes, Sam crumbles. With nothing left to lose, he hatches a plan to steal back the American Dream.
Niels Mueller’s directorial debut is designed as a chronicle of modern America’s loss of innocence, an era historians say began with Kennedy’s assassination and ended with Nixon’s resignation.
And it bombed in the United States, not because The Assassination Of Richard Nixon isn’t a great film -“ it is.
The Assassination Of Richard Nixon didn’t score at the box office because it is so antithetical to the Great American Dream, which Mueller dissects with all the skill of a surgeon.
This is remarkable, if unsettling, viewing with strong performances all round. Penn hollows himself out to create the shadow of a man with a big heart but perhaps one screw too loose.
Nixon is the film’s other star -“ the archival film clips of his frequent speeches on TV reveal what a corrupt trickster that guy really was.