The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle and Jack Thompson. Directed by Niels Mueller.
Running Time: 95 mins
Rated: Rated MA 15+
President Richard Nixon was never assassinated, of course. However, there was an incident at an airport in the early 1970s where a man wanted to hijack a plane with the threat of a gun and a bomb. This story has a basis in that incident. It creates a scenario which might explain why someone could want to assassinate the president.

This film is not your everyday entertainment, not exactly mainstream. But, it does have a well-known cast which might attract more people to see it than would otherwise see it. It is the kind of film that challenges Catholics to examine values in today's society.

Richard Nixon himself is seen only in television clips. There is a great deal of talk about him. This means that audiences need to remember the impact that he had made as president, especially the escalating of the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia. In 1971, is Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had to resign because of money fraud. By August 1974, Nixon had to resign, disgraced by the Watergate break-in to find
documents to discredit the Democrat party and the subsequent investigation and Nixon's being implicated.

This film is principally a portrait of a disillusioned man. He is a man with very little self-esteem, who is looked down on by his successful brother (whom he stupidly tries to cheat). He is also divorced from his long-suffering wife and allowed rarely to see his children. At work he is patronised by a loud furniture salesman boss (Australia's Jack Thompson) and his son. He tries to read the self-help books recommended by his boss but becomes caught up in the rights and wrongs of truth and lies in business. This is a portrait of the average American man of the 1970s, but who could be the average man of our own times.

And, all the while, on television, there is Richard Nixon extolling the American way of life and how much opportunity there is for everyone. This is not the perspective of Sam Bicke.

Sam Bicke offers another outstanding performance by Sean Penn. We know he is destined to failure and to violence but one can't help liking him, having care and pity for him and agreeing with his feelings on the oppression of ordinary people. Yet, he is also exasperating, just as he would be in real life. Penn has had an impressive career for more than twenty years as actor and director. In his recent films, especially Mystic River for which he won the Best Actor Oscar for 2003, he has proven himself a consummate actor.

There is great support from Naomi Watts as his ordinary and hassled wife. She is one of the stars of the moment, the lead in Ring 2 and the forthcoming remake of King Kong. She appeared with Sean Penn in the challenging 21 Grams. Jack Thompson is his supremely self-confident boss. Don Cheadle, so impressive in the recent Hotel Rwanda, is his good friend and support. In just one scene, Michael Wincott is chilling as his older brother.

You know the mayhem is coming and why, but it is still shocking when it happens.

Obviously a grim film, but well worthwhile.

Fr Peter Malone MSC is the International President of SIGNIS: the World Association for Catholic Communications and an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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