The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Directed by Niels Mueller. Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad Henke, Michael Wincott, Mykelti Williamson. (2004, R, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Jan. 21, 2005
First-time director Niels Mueller bills his debut, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, "the mad story of a true man." It’s a winking way to concede that Mueller may have fudged on the facts some, but the tagline gets it about right: An out-of-work salesman named Sam Bicke did in fact exist, and the story of his real-life, mostly forgotten assassination attempt on the president is a pretty lunatic tale. The film, which is set in 1974, opens with a bedraggled Bicke (Penn) on his Dictaphone, penning out loud a letter to Leonard Bernstein. Bicke has never met the conductor but has deemed him a good and worthy man to receive this tape, in which he explains in advance his rationale for hijacking an airplane and flying it into the White House. Bicke may sound like an open-and-shut case of the crackpot, but Mueller’s film manages to humanize him in a way that doesn’t undercut his unhinged frame of mind. (Indeed, his chief aggravants – the president, insincerity, the salesman-as-con-artist, and corporate mentality – are rankling to a lot of us; it’s just that Bicke took these complaints to a conclusion that the average citizen would never dream of.) After this flash-forward, the film then jogs back in time, to several months earlier. Bicke is struggling, but he’s not yet down for the count. He still has hope he can woo back the wife (played by Naomi Watts), who has recently left him. He has ambitions to open his own business with his best friend, an auto mechanic (Cheadle). He’s a liberal, a progressive, and a good-intentioned man who simply cannot play by society’s rules, cannot, in his eyes, compromise his own ideals in order to play well with others. If he were a different man, maybe a more confident, less squirrely-seeming one, that sort of idealism would be applauded – the rebel is as much an American archetype as the bootstrap salesman. But alas, the meek, mustachioed Bicke is not that man. His grand ideas tip too far toward harebrained, his distrust of society too paranoiac. And that’s when he’s doing relatively well – he can only go downhill, and he goes way, way downhill. Mueller’s film (co-written with Kevin Kennedy) is a catalog of Bicke’s tragic slide from pathetic to pathological, and it’s a tough sell, honestly. There is no simply no brightness, no hope in this film. Penn’s Bicke is often so pitiable it’s hard not to want to look away – but what else to expect from perhaps our most compulsively watchable contemporary actor? He’s terrific here, especially in the final scenes, when the film comes full circle back to the Bernstein letter, and he’s the most jagged, wild-eyed version of Bicke. There’s a bleak pleasure to the dictation of the letter – Mueller lays on the strings to convincingly tragic effect – but that’s the only kind of pleasure to be mined from the piece: the kind that hurts, the kind from which you’d rather look away.