Death of a Salesman: Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in The Assassination of Richard Nixon (Photo credit: Phil Bray, THINKfilm)
The key scene in Niels Muller’s debut film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, occurs early on when Jack Jones, an oily, rotund salesman (played by Jack Thompson) praises Nixon’s salesmanship. Jones asks Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), his nervous, underachieving protégé in the office furniture business, to remember Nixon’s 1968 campaign promise. “He said he’d end the war in Vietnam, and what did he do? He sent another 100,000 troops over there and blew the living shit out of ‘em!” Nixon’s 1972 pledge? Identical, and he won by a landslide. “He didn’t deliver, then he sold us on the exact same promise all over again,” proof positive, in the 1973 mind of Jack Jones, that Richard Milhous Nixon was the greatest salesman who ever lived.
Press screening audiences are notoriously reserved ones. Scribbling notes in the dark, few critics audibly react. The above scene, however, met with gales of laughter—every good lefty journalist in the room heard the parallels to George W. Bush with unmistakable clarity.
Although set 30 years ago (and written in the late 1990s), Muller’s film feels unerringly tailored to our national post-election hangover. Then as now, we’re enduring an unnecessary, unpopular, seemingly endless war; then as now, an oblivious, morally corrupt idiot occupies the White House. (One can only hope that Bush’s unmerited second term will match Nixon’s—that he’ll be forced to resign.)
The lead character, Sam Bicke, is a man burdened with a ridiculous sense of honor; as Sean Penn plays him, he’s gloriously exasperating to the people around him. “Why would you say that, Marie?” he demands of his ex-wife during a 3:30 AM phone conversation, after she’s apparently told him to get a life. Sam periodically drops in on Marie, hoping to woo her back, at the lounge where she works as a cocktail waitress. In one visit, they argue about the possibility of Sam losing his furniture store job over their marital status. “If you’re a good salesman,” Marie chimes in, “what does it matter to them if you’re married, divorced, or queer?” At the very mention of “queer,” a much more shocking word in ’73 than now, Sam bristles. He follows Marie back to a booth of men who’ve been admiring her long legs, tosses a drink in a man’s face, and with great bravado announces, “Sir, you should be ashamed! That woman is my wife!”
That The Assassination of Richard Nixon succeeds both as a comedy and a tragedy makes the movie a tremendous pleasure to watch (I’ve seen it twice), essential viewing for anyone who loves good acting and the art of film. I’ve been up and down in my opinion of Penn over the years; in Nixon, he is an undisputed master. As Laurence Olivier used his eyes to achieve varying effects, so Penn uses every muscle in his face, shaping and re-shaping contours, telling a tale in each ripple of skin. He brings a steadfast dignity to Sam Bicke while letting us see the clown in the man. His voice, too, sounds stronger, more mellifluously resonant than it ever has. I love how he begins and ends steadily yet dips into a whisper in the middle of, “I’m sure you deal with a lot of … incompetents, but I am a businessman,” when Sam harangues a loan officer’s secretary.
As Sam’s boss, the Australian actor Jack Thompson relishes playing a man whose idea of coaching consists of needling, whose compliments double as deadly insults. I hadn’t seen Thompson in a movie for several years; I still remembered him as the lean, buff attorney in Breaker Morant a quarter of a century ago—in fact, I remember Thompson’s full frontal pose in the December 1980 Playboy. (Don’t ask why.) What a shock, then, to see him as this corpulent, middle-aged fright!
Naomi Watts, fresh as springtime as Marie, nearly erases the memory of her horrible performance in 21 Grams. Mykelti Williamson has a sharp cameo as a leader of the Black Panthers, and Don Cheadle, customarily first-rate, plays Sam’s business partner (his only friend) Bonny. Bonny is everything Sam isn’t: a success within his own low-key, modestly ambitious range. He’s kept his marriage intact (there’s a wondrous scene of Sam hugging Bonny’s very young son for dear life) and Bonny lacks Sam’s pathological obsession with truthfulness. He’s able to suffer life’s misfortunes and move forward, whereas Sam, when all else fails, attempts to hijack a plane to crash into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Words of praise are also in order for the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also photographed Like Water for Chocolate). He supplies this film with gorgeously lit, extraordinarily fluid camera movements. Especially dazzling is a reverse tracking shot that pulls back from a black shoe being shined on a windowsill to reveal an apartment courtyard below, just one creatively framed image of many.
The off-screen presence of Leonard Bernstein figures prominently here. The real-life Sam Byck (the movie changes the surname spelling to protect his surviving family) held Bernstein in high esteem. “Your music is both pure and honest,” we hear Penn say as Sam composes audiotape letters to the conductor. (Regrettably, Muller wasn’t able to obtain clearance from Sony to use a single one of Bernstein’s recordings, so we hear a studio orchestra from Prague instead. Nor was Muller allowed to photograph the original cover art from Bernstein’s LPs.) These interior monologues directed to Bernstein run throughout the film. “What good is good, Maestro, in times like these?” Sam asks. It’s a question that all of us in the blue states might very well ponder, on the heels as we are of another Bush Coronation. — NPT
November 15, 2004