Cinema Signal:

The First Terrorist Act
by Harold Thomas Beck

. "The Assassination of Richard Nixon"

This is a study of the psychological breakdown of a man reaching extremes of self-worthlessness sufficient to perform a deranged act that could only lead to his own destruction. It is purportedly "inspired by a true story" but contains a feature that seems to be inspired by 9/11, namely, the concept of a plane's use as a lethal weapon.

Except that we're given a flash-forward introduction to Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) in the process of preparing for his final act, he would seem to be just another ordinary individual. As low achievers go, he seems to be trying as much as his capabilities allow. The thing that singles him out for attention is his conviction that there's a high level conspiracy against the little guy.

On a tape addressed to the composer Leonard Bernstein with the intention of explaining his actions to a man he highly admires, he refers to himself as a grain of sand among many who are controlled by the powerful. Bicke's tape tirade serves as a stream of consciousness narration as we go back to the beginning of his downslope, when one disappointment after the other undermines his pride and self-respect.

He tries, in typical loser fashion, to reclaim his marriage and family when it's clear to see that his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) has moved on. As his behavior becomes more and more aggressively desperate, even the kids become estranged. Pappy's getting unhinged.

His brother Julius (Michael Wincott), whom he tries to avoid as much as possible, berates him for his life of professional failure and the need to bail him out of characteristically badly judged situations.

He's got a job as an office furniture saleman that he's desperately trying to hold on to despite his boss's (Jack Thompson) constant hectoring and lecturing. The paycheck he gets is all he's got to maintain a little pride until he really gets back on his feet by opening a business of door-to-door tire sales with his mechanic friend and supposed partner Bonny (Don Cheadle). But, his dream of success rests on his application for a bank loan, a process that goes on way too long. Barely holding it together as things descend from bad to worse, the need for patience is a yet another of his missing traits.

Everywhere he goes, Nixon is on TV addressing the nation in an effort to stem the tide against a loss of office. Nixon is on TV at home, at Marie's home, on the display TVs at work, everywhere. And to Bicke, Nixon grows to symbolize all who are against him -- all the high born people who are keeping the grains of sand in their place. Nixon, Bicke claims, is a master salesman for swindling the American people in two elections. He is, finally, the villain who will pay for his sins against the common folk.

Bicke may not be the only man who sees Nixon that way, but he's one guy who's alienation has crossed over the threshold of sanity. He will seek an extreme form of vengeance against the man and against his feelings of puny worth.

The performances are first-rate with Penn turning in another intense piece of work. Watts, pairing up again with Penn after their successful match in "21 Grams" is as gutty and real as always but the script doesn't come close to helping us see what she once saw in her guy. Jack Thompson ("Breaker Morant"), as fulfilling a character actor as there is on the planet, doesn't strike a false note as the superior, baiting boss mocking an underling.

The film is realistically captured by the naturalistic lighting of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and is a well structured but thinly drawn narrative by debuting writer-director Niels Mueller who previously wrote "Tadpole." Interestingly, it's produced by Alfonso Cuaron of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" fame.

"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is a serious work with good intentions, providing a showcase opportunity for very significant talent, which accounts for it finding the necessary backing. It will also find its arthouse audience. But its theme and derived quality inspires me to wonder about the need for this material in the current movie marketplace.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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