The Assassination of Richard Nixon is based on a true story. Students of history may be wondering how the filmmakers pulled this off. Writer/producer/director Niels Mueller did so by making this a movie about an utter failure.
Sean Penn plays Sam Bicke, based on a man who in 1974 did in fact board an airplane with the intent of crashing it into the White House and killing the President of the United States. If you're the kind of person who watches the news and wonders what drives people to do insane things, you may appreciate the effort that goes in to this movie. But having plucked Sam Bicke from history's margins, Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy have to fill in a lot of blanks. And we have to put a lot of faith in their psychological guesswork.
We meet Sam on his first day at a new job selling office furniture. Sam must have done something for a living the past 20 or so years, yet he approaches his salesman duties, and his boss, looking skittish as a fawn. It's clear there's a lot riding on this job for Sam, separated from his wife and three children, and hoping stability and money and perhaps some polite stalking can win them back. Meanwhile he pursues his dream, along with best friend Don Cheadle, of owning a business; a mobile tire store. He pleads a fairly convincing case to a local Small Business Administration official, then proceeds to undercut it by letting his desperation seep out of every pore. In virtually every frame of film, Sam Bicke is a walking act of desperation. No one seems to fear him. But everyone fears for him. Left with self-pity, he looks for someone to blame. He's being forced to tell lies. Everyone against him is lying. And there on the TV screen, day and night, is Richard Nixon, the biggest liar of all.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is one of those films where people say "Sean Penn was brilliant, but..." And this film has a pretty big but. Penn may be turning in an extraordinary portrayal of a complex man. Or else it's a complex portrayal of an unformed character. Sam Bicke at times seems scared of his own shadow, yet in the film's most amusing scene he walks into the local chapter of the Black Panther Party and tries to sell them on admitting white people and changing their name to The Zebras. These may be two sides to the same character. Or it may be two scenes requiring a different character. It's hard to tell.
Penn is an actor always worth watching, even when he plays a character who is hard to watch. And Mueller looks to be a gifted director. There’s a great, grim tension to the film and outstanding small performances including Jack Thompson's Dale Carnegie touting boss and Michael Wincott as Sam's quietly intimidating older brother Julius. But The Assassination of Richard Nixon is obliged to come to an end. And by that end, when Sam Bicke has finally transformed into Travis Bickle, there is still nothing but desperation to hold onto.
Sam Bicke? We hardly knew ye. And maybe there’s a reason why.
© 2005 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 1/12/05
Assassination of Richard Nixon, The
US/Mexico - 2004