The assassination of Sean Penn


Just a few links to reviews here. I didn’t care much for The Assassination of Richard Nixon when I saw it four months ago — it’s an interesting film in some ways, but some of its political elements seemed like a stretch to me — and it’s been interesting, as the film has slowly rolled into and out of theatres here and there, to see other writers put into words why it didn’t work for me.

In the New Republic, Jonathan Kiefer wrote:

For a serious actor, Byck’s mysteries make irresistible fodder. For a self-serious actor, they’re imperative. Clearly, he and Penn were made for each other. But that’s not to say they make much headway together in the name of political progress. Byck, or “Bicke” as the movie calls him, probably figured the assassination attempt was his last chance for eminence. Not if Sean Penn has anything to say about it. For Penn, it’s as if playing a successful assassin, someone whose name you know, just wouldn’t do. Mueller’s script, cowritten with Kevin Kennedy, is the perfect Penn vehicle: The Assassination of Richard Nixon suggests, rather bluntly, but with conviction, that even being a psychopathic mediocrity shouldn’t necessarily exclude you from the American Dream.

Then, in the National Review, Thomas Hibbs wrote:

Bicke’s greatest emotional connection is with children. In scenes with children, he is at once a sympathetic, pathetic, and mildly frightening. Obsessed with innocence lost, Bicke is drawn to the simplicity of children but in a way that is unhealthy, inappropriately needy for an adult, especially a parent. Indeed, Bicke is in the grips of an immature, romantic, and finally deranged vision of the ordinary man and the American dream. No one who cares for him in the film ever comes close to adopting his theories; audiences are apt to have even less sympathy. How is it then that Penn could imagine Bicke as a vehicle for the expression of the political and social frustrations of our time?

The point the film actually makes concerns the danger lurking within such irrational romanticism, a danger that the obsession with innocence can, once it enters the political order, flip over into violence against what it takes to be the corrupting forces of civilized power. Whatever shred of political principle is left is quickly engulfed by irrational rage that lashes out, not at a well-chosen target, but at whatever crosses its path. There are important political and social lessons here, but they are apparently lost on Sean Penn, political commentator.

And finally, for the Spectator, Mark Steyn now weighs in. Being a Broadway buff, Steyn naturally begins by referring to that other fictionalized portrayal of Byck, in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins; and being a champion punster, he also gets this zinger in:

Everything that’s joyous and gleeful in the Weidman sketch on Byck [in Sondheim's Assassins] is dragged out beyond its natural length here — starting with Byck’s name, rendered here as ‘Bicke’. Don’t ask me why they got rid of the ‘y’: it’s not often the cries of ‘Get me rewrite!’ arise because the lead character needs more vowels. And, given that he’s played by a Penn, why didn’t they just rename him Bic?

I think Steyn might go a little far with his critique of Penn’s humourlessness in this role — Hibbs rightly notes the humour of the scene where Byck (or Bicke, whatever) meets the Black Panthers and suggests they rename themselves the Zebras — but yeah, for the most part, there is definitely something of that here.

It does make me curious to see what Penn’s performance in The Interpreter will be like when it opens next week. It seems like such a slick Hollywood production — it is directed by the man who directed Tom Cruise in The Firm, and it co-stars Cruise’s ex-wife Nicole Kidman (come to think of it, Penn co-starred with Cruise in Taps, didn’t he?) — that it seems a little odd to see Penn’s deeply wrinkled brow on the screen in the midst of all that. Then again, the film does take place at the United Nations, which probably caters to one or another of Penn’s political pet peeves.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05089439510877671134 Rae

    I had not read a word about “The Interpreter” but saw a trailer for it on tv. My first thought was, “Omigosh, is Sean Penn really trying to be an action star like he crucified Nick Cage for doing way back when?”

    I still have no idea what the movie is about, but that’s what the ads on tv made it look like. Rae


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