The Few for the Plenty

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Review of 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', director Niels Mueller

Last year Sean Penn won an Oscar for best actor. His latest film The Assassination of Richard Nixon had no chance of winning him, or any of the other actors involved, an Oscar. On the third week of its release this film was shown on 32 screens across the US (a mainstream film like Meet The Fockers was shown on 3,527). When one considers the plot it is no surprise that distributors shied away from it.

Set in 1974 amid Richard Nixon's second term as president, the main character played by Sean Penn is Sam Bicke - a furniture salesman who hates lying and is therefore a pretty bad salesman. His job and relationship crumble in tandem with a society he has stopped believing in. He sums up the US as a land of 'plenty for the few and few for the plenty'. Where slavery wasn't abolished, 'they just gave it a new name - employee'. With each event he comes to hate what is around him more and more. Yet Bicke is no movie hero. Penn's character is a desperate and lonely individual slowly losing his inner battle to control the fury rising within him.

The film portrays the US as a nation demoralised by the war in Vietnam. Political violence, perpetrated by the state, is a backdrop to the film. At home Bicke watches news reports on TV about the FBI attacks on the Black Panthers and the coup in Chile. This brutality is reflected in how ordinary individuals deal with each other, especially at work. Bicke can't stand the rituals of bullying and humiliation that so many US workers face every day. His black friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) and ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts) both in their own way come to terms with the casual racism and sexism they face. They have got to earn money to survive.

Penn's character becomes increasingly isolated and enraged by what he sees around him however. He decides to get the president - a man he sees as having sold the US public a damaged bill of goods in two elections! As the film is set in the twilight of the 1960s movements Bicke ends up not seeing a collective solution, deciding instead to assassinate the president using a method guaranteed to make film execs wince. Of course we know Nixon wasn't assassinated but that isn't the point of the film - it's about what can drive someone to want to do it. This is an allegory for the real US today. Someone like Sam Bicke would face not the same but worse pressure now, more bullying, more humiliations and more inequality. Bush's second term sees the US being pushed deeper and deeper into another horrific quagmire. Simultaneously US bosses wring workers like wet tea towels for extra profits. When it comes to wealth and poverty the US is a nation even more divided than in 1974. This is what the film is really about - so if it gets to a screen near you check it out.

Release date: 8 April