Character Assassination 

Sean Penn chews the scenery yet again

Sean Penn chews the scenery yet again

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Dir.: Niels Mueller

R, 95 min.

Playing at the Green Hills 16

Sean Penn gives a typically indelible performance in Niels Mueller's docudrama The Assassination of Richard Nixon, though the actor increasingly seems to prefer being memorable to being true. He's been playing a lot of exhausted, disaffected, distressed lumps lately, fleshing out the characters with so many tics that they resemble theatrical constructs, not flesh and blood. Doing this won Penn an Oscar last year, though that high-boil performance in Mystic River fit the broader design of an operatic movie. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is intended to be more subtly probing, and Penn's scenery-chewing is distracting here.

Penn plays Sam Bicke—based not too loosely on Sam Byck, but renamed to resemble Taxi Driver's antihero Travis Bickle. In 1974 Byck planned to kill President Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House, for reasons that were a little muddled. The movie's Bicke, by contrast, lays out a fairly clear trail of logic, in a series of recordings addressed to Leonard Bernstein. Bicke's a salesman who quit a job selling tires because he refused to gouge customers, only to find that his new job selling office furniture requires equivalent amorality. He's especially annoyed at the way his new bosses admire Nixon, who broke his 1968 campaign promises yet won reelection in 1972 because of stellar salesmanship.

Mueller clearly means to position the hero as a disillusioned everyman, relevant to a modern audience who may experience the divisiveness of modern politics as a personal rejection. But Penn emphasizes Bicke's schlubbiness to such a degree that it's hard to imagine how he ever concocted any kind of life before the events in the film. How did he end up with an ex-wife and three kids? And why in hell did a person so singularly unconvincing ever become a salesman? In making Bicke into a symbol, Mueller and Penn lose their connection to the character's humanity.

Like the recent documentary Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, The Assassination of Richard Nixon argues that men like Bicke were the real "silent majority" of the Nixon era. When Nixon was reelected, the American Dream suddenly seemed less inclusive, at least to idealists who'd been imagining a new era of love, peace and social justice. But Penn's performance barely hints at the fervor of his generation's hope. He just plays the crippling sense of loss. As cultural analysis, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is incredibly astute; but as drama, it has the authenticity and impact of a Nerf ball.

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