Thursday, January 20, 2005
The Assassination of Richard Nixon
I saw an advanced preview of the movie "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" tonight (thanks Moi) and it was good... much better than expected. I hadn't really heard anything about the movie until I heard about the free screening, and a quick check of some reviews on the internet showed a mixed reaction. But after watching the movie myself, I guess I can understand why.
The title of the movie is a little misleading since Nixon was never assassinated... instead, the focus of the movie is the last year of the life of a man named Sam played by Sean Penn (yeah, another role as a guy named Sam). Sam is basically a normal guy whose down on his luck - he's separated from family, and working a job he neither likes or is good at. He's a nice guy, but his idealism is the character flaw that sort of drags him down to a tragic end - a desperate attempt to assassinate Richard Nixon.
Other notable characters - Naomi Watts as Sam's distant wife (Marie), Don Cheadle as Sam's best friend and voice of reason (Bonny), and Jack Thompson as Sam's bully-ish sales boss at office furniture store (Jack).
Like watching any tragic story, you see the trainwreck coming before it happens - in the case of "The Assassination of Richard Nixon", it's Sam's rigid idealism and hope that sends him flying face first into a painful reality - permanent divorce from his wife and kids, losing his job, eviction from his apartment, and finally, the denial of a loan to start a small business with his best friend.
Each event is like watching a man being repeatedly kicked in the groin.
The movie is a slow burn, but following Sam's descent into hopelessness is what makes this film worth watching. This movie is based on a true story and though the story takes place before I was even born, I found the content to be very relevant to the current state of US and world affairs. Sam's story may have happened about 30 years ago, yet it still rings true today - millions of Americans are struggling desperately to "make the American Dream". For many people in our country (and the world), a happy family life with a spouse and children, a home, a steady job, and financial security are about as out of reach as a summer vacation on Pluto.
For Sam, and many Americans, finding out that the American Dream of a fulfilling family and financial prosperity isn't in their grasp is a bitter pill to swallow.
But even more relevant is the political aspects of the movie. As Americans, we've long been taught that our "American way of life" is provided and protected by our political system (the government). But the Nixon era, with the Watergate scandal, marked the beginning of the opening of the eyes of most Americans too the fallibility and callousness that has long existed in our government. In the movie, President Nixon becomes the focal point of everything Sam hates about his life in America, just as in our times, President Bush has become the focal point of hate for critics of our culture. At least 50% of our country distrusts its chief executive. Ouch.
A good quote from the movie (and a not so veiled jab at the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq) comes from Sam's boss that goes along the lines of: "You know who a great salesman is? Nixon. His first term in office, he promised to get us out of Vietnam and America elected him president. His second term in office, he promised to get us out of Vietnam and America elected him president. He sold us the same promise twice."
But to me, the most memorable scene of the movie happens near the end. Sam goes to his wife's house to try and see her and his children, but he finds the house completely deserted and empty. The only thing there is his dog, which not coincidentally, is the only thing to show him affection consistently in the film.
The camera shots inside the house are dull colors and shadows, and as Sean Penn sits at the bottom of the stairs, petting the dog, the scene radiates a sadness and melancholy that is only magnified by Penn's spot-on performance. He leads the dog into the basement and as the camera looks down on him, he pulls out a revolver and kills his beloved dog. The sound of the shot is loud and harsh, not because it's the sound of a gun, but because while watching the scene, you'd swear the sound is of a man's hopes and dreams being finally smashed to pieces. Sam silently leaves the house and then heads off on his doomed mission to kill Nixon.
The theater was completely quiet.
The death of a person's hopes and dreams is an excruciating thing to see. Maybe it's because I'm very familiar with that particular feeling.
IMDB The Assassination of the Richard Nixon
"Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly."
- Langston Hughes
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