Dir:Niels Mueller. US. 2004. 103mins
Lastyear at Cannes, Mystic River marked out Sean Penn as an early best actorOscar contender. This year, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon doesexactly the same. Currently in the prime of his career, Penn adds to his recentrun of outstanding work with a performance that captures every fibre andheartbeat of a man in the depths of despair at the life that fate has handedhim.
Criticalsupport for Penn's performance will be essential to the fate of the film as hischaracter's rage against the system eventually takes the form of a plan tohijack a plane and fly it into the White House.
Itmay have been inspired by true events but whether a mass American audience iswilling to go and see such a project is a moot point that places a considerablecommercial question mark over the film, regardless of its merits. Internationalprospects might prove healthier.
Setin the 1970s, the directorial debut of Tadpole screenwriter NielsMueller - which played in Un Certain Regard - also has a great affinity withsome of the landmark films of the period. Penn's Sam Bicke is disillusioned byhis failure to secure his share of the good life and feels a sense of shame fora country mired in the corruption and sleaze of the Nixon years.
He sharesthe alienation that was reflected in films and performances of the period like SaveThe Tiger (Jack Lemmon), The Conversation (Gene Hackman) and TaxiDriver (Robert De Niro).
Thestory begins in February 1974 with Bicke (Penn) sending a tape explaining hisactions to the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. Events flash back to ayear earlier with Bicke struggling to make his mark as a furniture salesmanunder the tutelage of boss Jack Jones (Thompson). Bicke is separated from hiswife Marie (Watts) but cannot accept that their marriage is over. He also hasambitious plans to start a mobile tyre repair service with his friend Bonny(Cheadle), if only he can secure the funds.
Bickeis an optimistic man with dreams that are all gradually abandoned in the faceof disappointment, rejection and the growing belief that nobody cares aboutwhat happens to him and millions of decent American men like him. He is clearlya man on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Penn provides an amazinglydetailed and convincing portrait of both his physical and mental collapse. Ameek, self-effacing figure, he grows more haggard, neurotic and needy as hishopes of business success and personal harmony all fade away.
Muellerkeeps the focus on Penn throughout and the actor also injects a world offeeling into the weary voice-over in which Bicke tries to explain hismotivations and aspirations.
Footageof Richard Nixon's speeches and television appearances is effectively deployedand the film balances the drama with humour, particularly in scenes where Bickenaively approaches the Black Panthers to express his solidarity and suggeststhat creation of black and white movement that could be called the Zebras.
Overall,The Assassination Of Richard Nixonoffers a compelling glimpse into the state of America in the 1970s and thedeath of a salesman who no longer believes in the tarnished promise of thegreat American Dream.
Int'l sales: Senator International
Exec prods: Arnaud Duteil, Avram, Butch Kaplan, Kevin Kennedy, Frida Torresblanco,Alexander Payne, Leonardo Di Caprio
Prods: AlfonsoCuaron, Jorge Vergara
Scr: NielsMueller, Kevin Kennedy
Prod des: LesterCohen
Main cast: SeanPenn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad Henke, Nick Searcy, MichaelWincott