An intriguing, moving directorial debut, Niels Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon takes a bitter, sympathetic stance on one loser's disgruntlement with the American Dream. Pure character study, Sean Penn plays the real life man of Samuel Byck (Bicke for the movie)—a disenfranchised misfit who's attempts to assassinate President Nixon never made it past the airline he briefly hijacked.
Narrated via Bicke's letters to his hero—Leonard Bernstein—the picture immediately puts you in his mindset while maintaining a careful, cringe-inducing distance. Mueller and Penn are crafty in creating a character oppressed by early 1970's America—a place where Richard Nixon inexplicably pops up on every television set and businessmen are sweaty, cheap-suited Dale Carnegie wannabees. And yet it's obvious that Bicke is his own worst enemy, self destructive in attempts to make sense of living in what he views a dishonest world. It's Bicke's decries of dishonesty that tie into the film's heart of alienation--business--and we can't help but side with him a bit. After all, what he's stating isn't untrue. Case in point: when Bicke's oily, furniture salesman boss points out that Nixon, elected partially, on the promise of getting us out of Vietnam (and does not fulfill that promise), is the greatest salesman of them all, you clearly see how Bicke's environment is not conducive to his sensitive, finally, insane disposition. And, in the end, you feel deeply sorry for him.
Part Willy Loman, part Travis Bickle and even, part Rupert Pupkin in the film's disturbingly humorous moments, Bicke is a symbolic composite of the alienated outsider. His family wants little to do with him and his wife (played by the always impressive Naomi Watts) is so sick of him that she's willing to forgo any money he can bring by just so she won't have to be in his presence. His business associates are growing suspicious of him—his nervousness and (understandable) disgust will do him in. And his sole friend (played by the film's voice of reason, Don Cheadle) is so laid back about the world; we wonder why he would ever hang around Bicke in the first place. Presumably, because he's a nice guy, but a guy who's got to feed his family and look out for himself. One friend is not enough for Bicke and the film follows his descent into madness. Harshly learning he'll never get his wife back, that he can't work for cheaters and that he'll never, ever get that business loan for his ill-fated tired company, he crumbles and schemes. He wants to make a difference, he wants to be rememebered past his dust-in-the-wind loserdom. He will be, albeit through violence and most especially when 9/11 happened--Byck was trotted out of relative obscurity as a sort of pioneer of airline terrorism (it was revealed that Byck wanted to smash a plane into the White House). Scored, gorgeously, by Beethoven's Emperor Concerto, it's tough to not feel this guy's heartbreak. And when the final act takes place—you're not simply horrified but sad and depleted.
Heightened by a stellar, unwavering loser performance by Penn and imbued with some stand-out moments that are as funny as they are painful (one involves Bicke walking into the Black Panther's headquarters and innocently asking to create "The Zebra Party"—one in which blacks and whites could join), The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a potent portrait that, in spite of a few weaker instances, permeates your consciousness. You'll think of 1974 but you'll also, subversively, think of 2004.
Read More Kim Morgan at her blog Sunset Gun