For the past year, the cinematic climate has been saturated with political films. From Fahrenheit 9/11 and Going Up River: The Long War Against John Kerry to Fahrenhype 9/11 and Michael Moore Hates America, it is nearly impossible to visit a theater or video store nowadays and not be bombarded with some political sentiment. Throw into the mix the public expression of movie stars’ leanings, and heated debate between celebrities—Sean Penn’s recent tussle with Team America’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone is just one of many examples—and Hollywood and D.C. now seem inexorably entangled.
Adding to the fray this December will be the inevitably debated debut film by Niels Mueller, The Assassination of Richard Nixon. This exquisitely acted film features a fine performance by Sean Penn that anchors the story of a man who loses everything and decides to follow the American dream in the most unlikely manner—assassinating the president. But despite its title and its arrival amidst a hyper-polemic era of filmmaking, Nixon presents a nuanced approach to politics that distances it from the talking head forums that litter today’s cineplexes.
How closely this film is based on the actual attempted assassination of Richard Nixon is debatable. But as it stands, the film is one of the best dramas of the year and it will hopefully inject some much needed life into theaters when it is released this December. Though modern in approach, the film (which is set in the ’70s) has a throwback feel that encompasses nearly every aspect of the production. What Mueller has done is distilled the essence of the great movies of the 1970s without simply mimicking them.
Many of cinema’s best films have been political at their core. Many have had political views and used the story to promote their views. Others have attempted to present a political issue in all of its complexity without passing judgment on the subject matter (granted, these films are much rarer). Still other films overlay a political context on top of the story.
Two modern example of the latter are Nixon itself and Y Tu Mama Tambien, by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, who is also one of the producers of Nixon. Cuaron laments the lack of genuine political fervor behind the majority of American cinema. In a recent interview he described various films by foreign directors who are trying to make a statement. What he disagrees with is the American notion that these filmmakers and their countries hate America. “We love America,” says Cuaron. “Most of us love America, what we don’t love is your current president.”
He finds it odd that in America it seems that everyone is silent about political issues in cinema—except during election time. “The American population is like a group of kids. During the election everyone is going out and can do and say whatever they want, but then the bell rings and everyone needs to go back in and be quiet for another four years.”
Cuaron sees cinema as a powerful way to make a complex statement about politics, and he feels that a change is occurring in America and that soon American directors will be infusing their films with more political context.
PENN IS MIGHTIER
One of the most politically outspoken American actors working today is Sean Penn. His past as Hollywood’s bad boy has been eclipsed in recent years by his staunch political beliefs and critiques of those he believes to be harming America. His most recent battle of words was the aforementioned exchange with Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the “brains” behind Team America: World Police. That film, which features a troupe of puppets fighting world terrorism takes a number of shots at liberal, outspoken actors like Matt Damon.
During the publicity tour for The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Penn spoke to a crowd of mostly college-age students following a packed screening in Loews Boston Common. He was fairly reticent to discuss his note to Parker and Stone (which concluded “All best, and a sincere fuck you… P.S. Take this as a personal invitation from me to you…to escort you on a trip, which I took last Christmas…into Fallujah and Baghdad and I’ll show you around. When we return, make all the fun you want.”). At one point, he simply mumbled under his breath that he can’t understand people not voting in the upcoming election.
Despite his coyness on the topic, outrage against Penn nevertheless erupted during the question-and-answer session. The first gentleman to raise his hand attacked Penn’s politics, called the movie “trash,” and then questioned Penn about whether he wears a hair piece. The interrogation riled Penn, who yelled back at the man in an irritated voice as the man was escorted out of the theatre.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon serves as a perfect example of how politics has seeped into all corners of the cinema—even in places where there was no such intention. Mueller wrote the film many years ago after graduating from Tufts. As he explained, the impetus for writing the film was reading of a shooting in San Diego. He wanted to explore “the line a person crosses that causes them to lose empathy for their fellow man.” He began researching assassins and created the story of a dejected man who talked into tape recorders during his spare time. It was only much later he found out about Samuel Byck and crafted his story around this real-life figure.
Consequently, politics do not play a role in Mueller’s story—they just serve as the backdrop for issues he wants to explore. Mueller explained that he was “ecstatic that the film will be released after the election” because he did not want it to “get caught up in the political maelstrom that is occurring.” Instead he wanted the film to be viewed as the piece of art it is—a moving study of humanity, loss and grief through the eyes of one man.
As the outburst against Sean Penn revealed, The Assassination of Richard Nixon will doubtless cause some political controversy in the world of entertainment for any number of reasons: its scenes of violence, its star’s rallying habits, its historical accuracy. But those who see the film will realize that even in the polemic times we inhabit, when the medium of film is manipulated so frequently in the interest of political gain, some movies can still use politics for an altogether different purpose: entertainment.