The Assassination of Richard Nixon: Sean Penn brilliant in everyday-life horror movie
Technically a sociopsychological 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 movie. From the very start, we know that something dreadful is going to happen. As the fact-inspired story inexorably 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. (Photo: Sean Penn The Assassination of Richard Nixon.)
The Assassination of Richard Nixon plot: Life unraveling
As presented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s appropriately gritty, washed-out cinematography, 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 worse 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 desperate 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: moving, complex performance
As The Assassination of Richard Nixon’s Sam Bicke (inspired by Samuel Byck, who also inspired Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle), 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, the actor 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, Penn turns Sam Bicke into someone recognizably — even touchingly — human. Considering everything Sam does (and aims to do) in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, that is a remarkable accomplishment.
Director Niels Mueller conveys 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 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, 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.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon Sean Penn photo: THINKFilm.