Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle
Director: Niels Mueller
Running Time: 95 mins
The Assassination Of Richard Nixon is an American film about a furniture salesman disgruntled with the world around him who sets his sights on the man he judges guiltiest of all: the President of the United States.
Based on a true story, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon is a remarkable watch, starring a fantastic lead performance from Sean Penn, captivating and self-aware social and emotional drama, and a blend between unsettling tension and moments of thrilling intensity.
While it’s not known as an all-time classic, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon is one of the most underrated films that I’ve seen in a long while. It has all the ingredients of a modern classic, and feels just as relevant today as it does to its 1970s setting and its year of release in 2004.
The thing about this film, however, is that its message isn’t quite as pointed or aggressive as you may expect. At its core, it follows the story of a man disillusioned by a society he sees as filled with greed and selfishness, and which seeks to oppress the poor, minorities, and anyone who isn’t at the top of the food chain.
Typically, Hollywood movies with social themes of that kind are overwhelmingly pointed in their discourse, never really bringing any ambiguity into the mix. The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, though, is different, as you follow a character who is a would-be champion of that message, but can be seen as just as much of an antagonist from the same perspective.
Much of the reason that works so well is down to Sean Penn’s fantastic lead performance. With an awkward and unsettled turn throughout, Penn really manages to inhabit the persona of a man fully disillusioned with the world around him, retreating ever further into a self-loathing shell that only makes his depression and fury worse.
And it’s that self-inflicted anger which plays into the film’s main themes, often citing Samuel Byck, who Penn plays, as the man responsible for his own disillusionment, and separate from the plight of others that he seems to align himself with.
It’s a fascinating idea that the film strikes up, and it’s one that makes it a far more riveting and multi-dimensional story than a pure social issue drama. On the one hand, you sympathise with a man who, at heart, is not bad. On the other, you can see his failings clear as day, suggesting that those he pins the blame for his struggles on aren’t entirely at fault.
Throughout, as his mental state worsens and he begins to lash out more, the film’s ambiguity about how you’re meant to see this man becomes all the more fascinating. Coupled with moments of thrilling drama and some of deeply unsettling tension, this movie turns from a strong social issue drama into an enthralling character study.
And in the end, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon never tells you how to feel about the story you’ve just seen unfold. Was Sam Byck at fault for his own struggles? Or was it really society around him that caused it all for him, and for so many others? It’s up to you to decide and interpret, something that often goes amiss in Hollywood dramas.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by The Assassination Of Richard Nixon. An enthralling and captivating drama brought to life by a fantastic leading performance from Sean Penn, strong direction from Niels Mueller, and impressive tension and depth throughout, it’s a gripping watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.6 overall.