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Assassination of Richard Nixon, The

Reviewed By Elaine Perrone
Posted 11/13/04 17:14:21

"Deja vu, all over again."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The year is 1974. Richard Nixon is at the midpoint of his second term as president, and the United States is a country divided. For one man, Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), the Land of Plenty has become a place where "there's plenty for the few and nothing for the plenty," a travesty he blames squarely on the administration of Richard Milhouse Nixon. For another man, Sam's boss Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), the owner of an office furniture store, Nixon is "the greatest salesman in history." Telling his sales staff that the key to successful selling is "belief," he points to Nixon, marveling that the man got himself elected on the promise to get the country out of Viet Nam, instead proceeded to send in an additional 100,000 troops, then got himself re-elected on exactly the same promise to end the war. OUCH!!!

Sam, a careworn man in his mid-40s, isn't a believable salesman to anyone, least of all himself. His wife Marie (Naomi Watts) has left him, in what he has convinced himself is a trial separation but for her is a done deal. He hates his work, and is terrible at it, fundamentally incapable of telling a customer, as Jack has coached him, that a Naugahyde chair is "real leather covered with Naugahyde." What Sam really wants to do is open a mobile tire-repair business with his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). On the strength of a promise from President Nixon to "help the small-businessman," Sam applies for an SBA loan, seeming to understand inherently that the loan isn't going to come through.

While Sam waits the interminable eight weeks that he is told it will take for his application to be processed, he is surrounded by images of the Watergate debacle as it unfolds, fomenting his feelings of powerlessness and rage at the villainy, injustice, and hypocrisy of the world around him. When he sees news footage of an Army private who has stolen a military helicopter and landed it on the White House lawn, with a comment by a newscaster how easy it would have been to crash the helicopter into the White House, Sam begins to see a way for the world to finally sit up and take notice of him.

Based upon the true story of a Baltimore man who, in 1974, hijacked an airplane with the intent of crashing it into the White House, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is highly relevant to the mood of America today as well as being chillingly prescient to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. It is also another acting tour de force for Sean Penn, who at times is barely recognizable as a meek man whose self-worth is defined by his neatly trimmed mustache.

Sadly, what had all the potential of being a riveting and harrowing moviegoing experience ended up being terribly unsatisfying because, in the end, it is merely a capsule of an event and gives no picture at all of what led up to it. At one point, Sam must have been a happily married man with a home in the suburbs, a lovely wife, and two sweet children. How everything ended up going sour for him, we are given no clue, nor are we really given any idea how he came to see a suicidal act of terrorism as his only recourse.

There are two facets of "Assassination" that give it its humanity. One is the extensive use of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, directed by Leonard Bernstein, who is Sam's ideal of all that is pure and honest in the world. The other is a lovely scene in which Sam visits the Baltimore headquarters of the Black Panthers, donating money to their cause and telling them that they could broaden their base by including whites and renaming themselves the Zebras. Unlike many films that could do with a good 30 minutes of trimming, I would have welcomed another half-hour of back story to augment "Assassination"'s spare 103 minutes of running time.

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