Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2004

By James Verini

As the light waned on a brisk fall afternoon, Sean Penn walked quickly into the barroom at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills in that slightly pigeon-toed half-swagger, and the heads of the patrons — mostly women, as it happened — turned in unison. Penn was wearing a black suit and gray shirt, was clean-shaven (once a rarity for him, but now increasingly the norm) and had his hair in a kind of 1930s-style sideburn-less blaze. The ‘do was suited to his next role: He would soon be leaving for Louisiana to begin filming “All the King’s Men,” an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel about an opportunistic Depression-era Southern politician. Penn will play the lead.

The women’s eyes stayed glued to Penn, but not just because he was a celebrity. This was the Peninsula, after all; Sylvester Stallone had walked in 10 minutes earlier and no one had batted an eyelash. No, they looked because he was Sean Penn, and everything that entails, which is quite a lot these days. He is the Oscar winner who went to Iraq with a Nikon and a pack of American Spirits, a man who at 44 has solidified into an unnervingly effective actor, yes, but also a cultural flashpoint, a figure of respect or ridicule, depending on the primary color of your state — a generational icon, perhaps, though Penn either winces or shrugs (frustration coming more naturally to him than indifference) when that term comes up.

He settled into a banquette in a back corner and sank low into the cushions, looking smooth and tan but weary. His eyes, which have a restless mischievousness to them, roamed.

Penn, as no one needs reminding, is a vocal opponent of the Bush administration, and the weight of the president’s reelection was on his mind on this recent day. Nominally, he was there to talk about his latest movie, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” which lands in theaters next week, but the discussion kept returning to politics. For Penn, however, that only made sense.

“I don’t separate it that much from the movie business, or from writing or parenting or anything else,” he said of his interest in politics. “We get up in the morning and we all have a lot of jobs.” Penn, who is given to quoting, quoted E.L Doctorow: “Doctorow said the artist should know the times in which he lives. Something of the present culture has to be siphoned through the work.”

The direction of the conversation made sense for another reason. Penn’s latest movie is a claustrophobic character study inspired by an actual person, Samuel Byck, a Pittsburgh salesman who came to blame Nixon for his troubles and in 1974 hatched a plot to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. The movie is a strange amalgam of fantasy and existential lament, attempting at once to show how the corruption of power crushes the individual (the Watergate hearings play continually in the background) but also to chronicle Byck’s delusional paranoia. He is a painfully helpless character, and Penn’s performance is, as usual, all-consuming, like a vortex at the center of the film.

“That helplessness — that was a taxing aspect of the movie,” Penn said. “I’m sure it’s a tough movie to watch, because it was a tough movie to do. I don’t know that I’m going to ask anybody to be happy while they’re watching it.”

It is probably not a coincidence that “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is coming out now — from cineplex gloss-jobs to art-house documentaries, all signs are pointing to a 1970s-style re-politicization of Hollywood. But the film is not as politically minded as its title might suggest. It is a straightforward character study. Penn described it as “not explicitly political, but humanly political.”

For Penn, Washington’s fraught relationship with Hollywood is not an abstract matter. His father, the television writer-director Leo Penn, who died in 1998, was blacklisted in the 1950s and had to work under a pseudonym, or not at all, for years.

He was reluctant to talk about his father. Asked whether he thought his father’s blacklisting has had an effect on his own work, Penn said, “It’s among a lot of things about my father, his personality as well as his history, so it’s very hard to figure out” — and then he trailed off, clearly wishing to go elsewhere.

During the 1970s, when Penn was growing up (he said that he watched the Watergate hearings “obsessively” as a teenager), an older generation of Hollywood actors, such as Warren Beatty, a close friend of Penn’s, was able to attach itself to candidates and causes without being labeled opportunists or amateurs, as Penn, among others, so often is now. Certainly, Beatty’s marionette effigy was not torn apart and burned (despite the fact that he made “Reds,” about radical journalist John Reed, nor even the much-maligned comedy “Ishtar”) as Penn’s is in “Team America: World Police.”

Is Hollywood too reluctant to question Washington these days?

“I would say these things are cyclic, and unfortunately the cycles seem to be in some kind of relationship to the cycles of death and horror,” Penn said. “What happened with movies around 1975 with Vietnam — that’s starting to happen again now. You never can tell. Nobody knows where the cycles come from. We get too tired of nothingness or horror makes us try to create something of life, or an observation on the horror. I can certainly say that, for me, the times are provocative. But that’s always been the case for me in some sense.”

Penn, loosened up at this point, looked around the room mischievously and slouched lower into the banquette, and then took a used tissue out of his pocket and stuffed it behind the cushion. Then he flashed a quick conspiratorial smile. Why? Just to be a little defiant, his eyes seemed to say.

This token bit of troublemaking made one think what a shame it is that “All the King’s Men” isn’t coming out this month too. It would be entertaining to see reactions to Penn as the unhinged Byck and then, in the neighboring theater, as the diametrically opposed Willie Stark, the controlling, blustery governor whom Warren modeled after Louisiana politician Huey Long.

At the least, the double feature would clue audiences into a central fact about Penn that is apt to get overlooked in any “Crossfire” shouting match: He is not a simple knee-jerk kind of guy on any matter. In person he is openly conflicted, adverse to generalizations, wary of proselytizing.

(Rereading them a year and a half later, the full-page ads he took out in the New York Times and Washington Post protesting the Iraq war, while brash, even at points a bit obtuse, can hardly be called proselytizing.)

Certainly this skepticism and self-doubt, not to mention a need to stick unsightly things among the comfortable cushions of entertainment, has come across in his screen performances at least since “Taps,” in the three movies he’s written and directed — “The Indian Runner,” “The Crossing Guard” and “The Pledge” — and in other aspects of his life. Penn, who in his work often looks at the demoralizing effects of violence on normal people, is, it should be noted, a proud gun owner. He is an avid surfer who until recently had a three-pack-a-day smoking habit. He likes to remain ambivalent. He seems to draw energy from it.

Which is not to say that he’s struggling with his political allegiance these days. But Penn’s convictions come out less in explicit terms and more in analogies and cultural fodder, which he seems to accumulate like a kind of occupational hazard. (And even as a possible alternate occupation: While Penn was in Iraq, where he went once before and once after the first wave of major combat, he wrote two lengthy and quite vivid dispatches for the San Francisco Chronicle. Currently, he’s writing the forward for a re-release of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Curse of Lono.”)

“It’s a funny thing about politics and movies,” Penn said. “I think that people want to be on the hero’s side in the movie but end up on the bully’s side in real life.”

Did he think movies had the power to change how people think about politics, to spur them to action? he was asked.

“They can take an idea and fuel it,” he said. “All we do with movies is hope. People are afraid to be alone in their hearts or minds. To have original thought is to be, by definition, alone. But it’s the aloneness that unifies us. And that’s what a great movie will do — it will make us feel less alone.”