- The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) movie review: Starring a first-rate Sean Penn as a mentally unbalanced “all-American loser,” Niels Mueller’s unnerving effort multitasks as sociopolitical commentary, psychological drama, and horror thriller.
- Inspired by the real-life story of tire salesman Samuel Byck, The Assassination of Richard Nixon has several elements in common with Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic Taxi Driver, starring Robert De Niro as the titular psychopath Travis Bickle.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon: Excellent Sean Penn as the All-American Misfit in everyday-life horror tale
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, co-written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, works just as well as a horror film: from the very start, we know that something ghastly is about to happen.
As this fact-inspired story of a troubled all-American Everyman progresses toward its inexorable climax, the sense of dread increases until the violence, depicted in harrowing detail, explodes on screen.
That’s the stuff that real-world nightmares are made of.
Living the American Nightmare
Shot by Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow, Y Tu Mamá También) in gritty, washed-out colors that give it a documentary feel, The Assassination of Richard Nixon begins in Philadelphia in winter 1974, when the life of dimwitted, painfully honest, former tire-shop worker turned 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 Daddy.
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 launch a tire distribution business. 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 on the world. That means hijacking an aircraft so he can crash it into the White House.
‘Everymisfit’ Sean Penn: Multilayered portrayal
As Sam Bicke – based on real-life, unemployed former tire salesman Samuel Byck – Sean Penn delivers a near-flawless portrayal of a self-described “grain of sand.”
Although bits and pieces of another Sam – the nice-as-pie mentally handicapped Sam Dawson of I Am Sam – creeps into Penn’s performance every now and then, the Best Actor Oscar winner (for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, 2003) succeeds in bringing to life a social outcast who is much more than a movie sketch of either a simpleton or a potential mass murderer.
By treating this difficult, complex character with empathy and without condescension, Penn turns him into someone touchingly, universally human. Considering everything Sam does (not to mention everything he fails to do) in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, that is a remarkable accomplishment.
De facto horror story
Like his star, director and co-screenwriter Niels Mueller holds nothing back. This well-crafted (if a tad too deliberately paced), provocative film shows us a country – from the highest echelons of government to office supply sales managers – fouled by greed and corruption.
On a personal level, its people are either unwilling or unable to offer solace and understanding to an emotionally distraught 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 venality, apathy, and selfishness, Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy tell us, can be disastrous.
Unlike the cheesy spookiness of movies about alien invaders, flesh-eating living dead, and misshapen Middle-Earth dwellers, the horror in The Assassination of Richard Nixon is genuinely disturbing. After all, as recent events have shown, unlike E.T.s, zombies, and orcs, human beings like Sam Bicke can be found anywhere.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)
Director: Niels Mueller.
Screenplay: Niels Mueller & Kevin Kennedy.
Cast: Sean Penn. Naomi Watts. Don Cheadle. Jack Thompson. Michael Wincott. Brad William Henke. Nick Searcy.
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Film Editing: Jay Cassidy. Music: Steven M. Stern. Production Design: Lester Cohen. Producers: Alfonso Cuarón & Jorge Vergara.
“The Assassination of Richard Nixon Movie” notes
Samuel Byck & Travis Bickle: Taxi Driver connection?
 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 Taxi Driver screenplay at age 26 (1972–1973) – or about one to two years before Samuel Byck attempted to kill Richard Nixon.
If that chronology is accurate, the similarity between the names Byck and Bickle is a mere (and astonishing) coincidence. According to Schrader, Travis Bickle was inspired by Arthur Bremer, the man who shot U.S. presidential candidate George Wallace in May 1972.
Also of note, The Assassination of Richard Nixon evolved from Niels Mueller’s wholly fictional screenplay called “The Assassination of L.B.J.” – that’s U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–1969). While doing research for the project, Mueller learned of Samuel Byck’s story, which paralleled that of his lead character; the writer-director then decided to reformulate his script using Byck as its direct inspiration.
An aside: In Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s stage musical Assassins (first presented in 1990), Samuel Byck was played by, among others, Lee Wilkof (off-Broadway), Ciarán Hinds (London), and Mario Cantone (Broadway).
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The Assassination of Richard Nixon cast and crew info via the AFI Catalog website and other sources.
Naomi Watts and Sean Penn The Assassination of Richard Nixon images: THINKFilm.
“The Assassination of Richard Nixon Movie: Sean Penn Lives the American Nightmare” last updated in December 2020.