February 25, 2005

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Directed by Niels Mueller Starring Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson and Naomi Watts

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

Boasting impressive credentials including stars Sean Penn, Don Cheadle and Naomi Watts, as well as producers Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio, last year's award-season leftover The Assassination of Richard Nixon must have been promising on the drawing board. Based on a real-life botched plot to crash a hijacked plane into the White House, it has an eerie post-9/11 timeliness. But it ultimately unfolds as a pretentious by-the-numbers Taxi Driver rip-off. In fact, first-time director Niels Mueller demonstrates a blind ambition for superfluous acclaim rather than probing social commentary.

The film re-imagines assailant Samuel Byck as Sam Bicke (Penn), an all-around loser struggling to get a grip on his failed career and personal life. With his idealist conscience often eclipsing work-a-day-world practicality, he is unable to hold a steady job and support his family. Unrelenting motifs of American-dream-fulfillment Cadillacs, ruthless Dale Carnegie/Norman Vincent Peale mantras, racial repression and televised Watergate coverage endlessly divulge his sense of disenfranchisement. As his slimy boss (Jack Thompson) suggests Tricky Dick as a model salesman who twice closed the deal with American voters pitching identical plans to end the Vietnam War, a target emerges in Bicke's quest for prominence and social justice.

Though few Scorsese homages have managed to make the riveting impression of Gaspar Noé's teeth-gnashing I Stand Alone, that path still serves as a shortcut for novice filmmakers starving for attention. In spite of Mueller's repeated denial in the Assassination press notes of any Taxi Driver influence, parallels between the two films go beyond the thematic and the protagonists' names. His film similarly relies on voice-over narrations - lent by Bicke's reverential messages to Leonard Bernstein that evoke Eminem's "Stan." Bicke's clinging to his estranged wife (Watts) emulates Travis Bickle's stalking of campaign aid Betsy, just as Bicke's rehearsals of the hijack are reminiscent of Bickle's "You talkin' to me?" routine. A strip joint also serves as a flippant replacement for the porn theatre Bickle frequented.

Although Taxi Driver lacked Mamet-esque white-collar disaffection in its pathology case study, Mueller's treatment isn't exactly novel after Falling Down. Assassination chokes on its aesthetics deep throat, with excessive non-diegetic sound, jittery camera and Steven M. Stern’s pseudo-Philip Glass score rescinding any sense of alienation. The most remarkable element is Penn's dependably intense performance, which is always something to behold.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.