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'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' Review: Sean Penn as 'Taxi Driver' Inspiration?

The Assassination of Richard Nixon Sean Penn'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' review: Sean Penn brilliant in everyday-life horror movie (photo: Sean Penn in 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon')

Technically a sociopolitical-psychological drama about those for whom the American Dream is nothing more than a pathological delusion, Niels Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon works just as well as a horror film. From the very start, we know that something dreadful is about to happen. As the fact-inspired story of salesman Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) progresses toward its bloody climax, the suspense increases until the violence, depicted in harrowing detail, explodes on screen. That's the stuff that nightmares are made of.

Shot in gritty, washed-out colors by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — thus giving the narrative a documentary-like feel — The Assassination of Richard Nixon begins in winter 1974, when the life of dim-witted, painfully honest office-supply salesman Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) starts to unravel.

Despite his extensive use of self-help books, Sam's job is in jeopardy; his obnoxious boss (a superb Jack Thompson) is constantly berating him for his mediocre sales. Complicating matters, Sam's estranged wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), is trying to fully extricate herself from him. Even Sam's children aren't much interested in spending time with their father.

In an attempt to get a handle on his life, Sam applies for a government loan so he and a friend, the easygoing mechanic Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), can start a tire distribution business. But things go from bad to desperate when Sam discovers that Marie has been seeing another man, and that his business loan may not come through.

Unable to adapt himself to a society that seems to be ruled by hypocrisy, deceit, and greed — with disgraced president Richard Nixon as the oft-televised embodiment of all that is wrong with the United States — Sam decides to find his own way to leave a mark in the world. That means hijacking an aircraft so he can crash it into the White House.

Sean Penn as Sam Bicke: Complex, multilayered performance

As Sam Bicke — inspired by real-life, unemployed former tire salesman Samuel Byck* — Sean Penn delivers a near-flawless portrayal of a self-described "grain of sand." Even though bits and pieces of another Sam — the nice-as-pie mentally retarded Sam Dawson of I Am Sam — creeps into Penn's performance every now and then, in The Assassination of Richard Nixon the Oscar-winning actor (Mystic River) still manages to convincingly bring to life a social outcast who is much more than a mere dimwit or a potential mass murderer.

By treating this difficult, complex character with empathy and without condescension, Sean Penn turns Sam Bicke into someone recognizably — even touchingly — human. Considering everything Sam does (besides what he intended to do) in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, that is a remarkable accomplishment.

Real sense of horror

Like his star, director Niels Mueller pulls no punches. This thoughtful, well-made (if a tad too deliberately paced) film shows us a country — from the highest echelons of government to office-supplies salesmen — fouled by greed and dishonesty. On a personal level, its people are either unwilling or unable to offer solace and understanding to an emotionally distraught social outcast. In fact, no one even bothers to notice that Sam Bicke is a man in dire need of psychiatric help. The consequences of this combination of corruption, apathy, and selfishness, Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy tell us, can be disastrous.

Unlike the laughable spookiness of movies about vampire killers, alien invaders, and deformed Middle-Earth dwellers, the horror in The Assassination of Richard Nixon is truly disturbing. After all, as recent events have shown, people like Sam Bicke can be found anywhere.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004). Director: Niels Mueller. Screenplay: Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy. Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Michael Wincott, Brad William Henke.

Samuel Byck and Travis Bickle of 'Taxi Driver'

* Initially, this review of The Assassination of Richard Nixon stated that Samuel Byck also inspired the character of Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976). However, that film's screenwriter, Paul Schrader, claims he wrote the film's screenplay at age 26 (1972), or about two years before Samuel Byck attempted to kill Richard Nixon.

If that chronology is correct, the similarity between the names Byck and Bickle is a mere (and bizarre) coincidence. I should add that according to Schrader, Travis Bickle was inspired by Arthur Bremer, the man who shot U.S. presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972.

Curiously, The Assassination of Richard Nixon evolved from Niels Mueller's totally fictitious screenplay called "The Assassination of L.B.J." (That's U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson, people.) While doing research, Mueller discovered Samuel Byck's story, which paralleled that of his lead character; the writer-director then decided to reconstruct his screenplay using Byck as its direct inspiration.

This The Assassination of Richard Nixon movie review is a revised edition of a commentary originally posted in December 2004. The Assassination of Richard Nixon Sean Penn photo: THINKFilm.

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