The American film renaissance of the late-'60s and '70s, widely acknowledged as arguably the last great flowering of the country's cinematic creativity, was characterized by an inquisitive spirit constantly prodding the gulf between America's ideals and its reality. Check out any picture by Penn, Altman, or Rafaelson, and underneath the volatile inventiveness you find images of solitude, paranoia and despair -- a darkening mood splendidly summed up by the title of Robert Phillip Kolker's study, A Cinema of Loneliness. You don't have to set a '70s masterpiece next to today's CGI-crammed vehicles to yearn for that era's balls (try to imagine Five Easy Pieces being financed today), though apparently that's precisely what neophyte director Niels Mueller did. His debut, the dour pressure-cooker The Assassination of Richard Nixon, channels the decade's lingering anger by evoking one of its seminal works, Scorsese's apocalyptically anguished Taxi Driver.
It's no accident that Mueller rearranges the name of his real-life protagonist, Samuel Byck, to Bicke as a nod to Scorsese's psycho-avenger Travis Bickle. Barely a footnote in the decade's history, Byck was a Baltimore misfit who in 1974, in the midst of the twin national traumas of Vietnam and Watergate, got himself killed during a ludicrous attempt to hijack an airplane and crash into the White House. Mueller rewinds the tale a year to follow Byck (Sean Penn) through the disgruntled indignities -- at work, home, and life in general -- that fanned the flames of his psyche. When not stammering out success mantras while selling furniture, pitching a tires-on-wheels business to potential clients or spending a whole day staking out the home of his ex-wife (Naomi Watts), he nurses and feeds a disgust for the society he cannot take part in, a whining, weaselly timebomb, ticking away.
"The system is not right," Byck muses. Who's to blame? Nixon, of course, whose sales pitch (lying about ending the war) snatched the public's vote twice, making him, according to Byck's bullying boss (a jovially corrupt Jack Thompson) the ultimate salesman. Recording his plight for maestro Leonard Bernstein, he bemoans the souring of the American Dream, pours his anger against injustice, and ultimately hopes for purification through destruction. Again like Taxi Driver, The Assassination of Richard Nixon charts a delusional loner's path to dubious redemption, funneling the zeitgeist's fury onto political figures, and Mueller even models a few shots (Byck aiming a gun at an oblivious customer, or staring dead-eyed at the Big Jowly One in a TV set) after some of Scorsese's feverish compositions. Yet Penn's groveling, muttering, slow-burning Byck, clueless enough to suggest a biracial sector to the Black Panthers, is probably closer to Rupert Pupkin, main character of The King of Comedy and another De Niro master class in corrosive, all-American loserdom.
The movie, for all its meticulous effectiveness in building up to the explosive climax, is more successful at suggesting a country's disenchantment than in expressing it through Byck's gaze of maniacal loathing, despite Penn's superb performance. Still, tensions have scarcely diminished since Tricky Dick's days, and Bush's re-election in the heat of this generation's own Vietnam fuels The Assassination of Richard Nixon with some chilling parallels. If Mueller and Penn are too intelligent to lionize their homicidal Willy Loman for his destructive and useless kind of rebellion, they are critical enough to see him as the direct outgrowth of a society where the cracks of injustice and inequity have been papered over by the machinery of capitalism. 1974 or 2005? Flawed but pungent, Mueller's purposefully punitive anti-blockbuster zeroes in on a worm who turns and goes down in flames, with the bloody messiness of the climatic hijacking expressing nothing so much as the spillage of an every-schmuck's impotent rage.
Less turning of the worm than return of the repressed, The Merchant of Venice has to contemporary audiences always been Shakespeare's most problematic work. Great artists aren't necessarily enlightened people, and the play's rabid anti-Semitism, virulently evident in the villainy of Shylock the moneylender, is as braided to the prejudices of its time as The Birth of a Nation was to Griffith's Old South roots. The safest way to play it today is to make the Bard's Evil Jew a victim of Renaissance bigotry, which was clear even to this dim high-schooler when in my sophomore year I played Shylock about a shade more martyrized than Joan of Arc. Happily, it's Al Pacino at the wheel in Michael Radford's new movie version, muttering toadyishly in robes but always with an incinerator burning within, biding his time amid the romping Venetians around him until it's payback time and he's ready to carve his bond out of Antonio's (Jeremy Irons) chest.
It's a tribute to Pacino's art that Shylock emerges lucidly as a figure of tragic obsession, with his anger and pride intact. If only the rest of the movie were as powerful. Already making excuses by opening with a scrawl warning about intolerance circa 1596, Radford proceeds to hint at a gay Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes), a bratty Portia (Lynn Collins), and the modern links to the play's clash of cultures, but never quite breaking the eggs to make the omelet. His Venice is deglamorized, vaguely venereal and full of half-naked whores jeering from the windows, and the "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech is whipped into a trademark, full-blown Pacino Scent of a Woman outburst. With few exceptions (with Orson Welles' great Chimes at Midnight towering above all), filmmakers are normally happy to leave the beauty and clarity of Shakespeare's words take center stage, though Radford abuses that right with blocky camera placement after blocky camera placement. Half-assed revisionism or not, I was as moved by "the quality of mercy is not strained" as I have ever been. Was that really over four centuries ago?
Reviewed January 20, 2005.