Oscar winning actor and director Sean Penn graces our screens twice this month - in two politcally charged dramas. In The Interpreter he stars alongside Nicole Kidman in a tale set in the United Nations. In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, based on a true story, Penn plays Samuel J Bicke, a man disenchanted with politics to an alarming and dangerous degree.
The film tells a story about the impact of the American Dream as a benchmark for success on those who fail to achieve it. Bicke is an average Joe whose life falls apart bit by bit against the backdrop of Nixon's presidency in 1974 and the emerging Watergate scandal. We witness a desperate man who feels betrayed by the Nixon Government to the extent that he plans to hijack a commuter plane and crash it into the White House - a chilling foretelling of what was to happen 30 years later on 9/11.
Penn has described the making of Nixon as "a misery" mainly because of the depressing parallels he sees between the Gerge W Bush and Nixon administrations: George W is a salesman peddling patter aimed soley at winning the presidency, which is what Bicke believed Nixon to be and was the motive behind his assassination plot.
The film subtly delivers its socio-political statements, commenting on the harsh realities of life for millions of Americans who live below the poverty line and, like Bicke, could be drawn into expressing their frustrations through crime and violence.
Penn, that most lauded of actors, delivers another strong performance. We feel his disappointments, we cross our fingers that things will improve for him and we follow his character to his inevitable doom as he loses his job, his home, his marriage, his self respect and his sanity. Yet while Penn is convincing, the writing is less compelling because the characterisation of Bicke lacks depth and context. We do not learn fully Bicke's background so cannot completely empathise or engage with his character, something of a failing in the screenplay, which was co-written by first-time director Niels Mueller.
The prescience of the plot is not lost on Mueller, who worked on the film for six years, well before the dreadful events of 2001. The film, with a running time of 95 minutes, feels much longer with its slow pace. In Muller's defence the dragging pace is intentional, as Bicke's anger and growing instability lead him slowly and inevitably towards his doom.
Overall the film works as a cautionary tale about the impact of poor governance and electoral disillusionment when government's promise much but fail to deliver - a lesson UK politicians would do well to heed in the run up to a General Election. Bicke wanted to go out with a big bang, something by which he would be remembered - ironically. But this film may be a case of politics over narrative, in which case his legacy will be shortlived.