Richard Nixon does not die in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, but the film's protagonist - a depressed, angry, middle-aged man named Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) - eventually comes to believe that, for the good of himself and his country, the commander-in-chief deserves death. Estranged from his wife, unable to hold down employment, and disgusted by the lies and hypocrisies of a 1974 American society that favors the deceitful rich and powerful over the little man, Bicke is a powder keg waiting for his fuse to be lit. And in Niels Mueller's unsettling debut, that igniting spark comes from a series of final disappointments that Bicke - the type of man who blames his woes on a general, conspiratorial "they" - conveniently pins on the corrupting influence of the tricky U.S. president seen talking about hope and prosperity on his living room TV.
A kindred spirit of Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle ("God's lonely man") with politics, instead of prostitution, on his mind, Bicke fervently believes in honesty, upright morals, and a sense of decency and fairness. Unfortunately, his uncompromising idealism functions as a straightjacket, preventing him from performing the casual deceptions necessitated by his job as a furniture salesman or accepting the fact that his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) must don a short miniskirt and tolerate customers' gropes to earn a living as a waitress. He resents the success of his tire salesman brother Julius, longs for the happy stability of living with his wife and three kids (who seem to fear him), sports fanciful dreams of starting his own tire business with an African-American friend (Don Cheadle's Bonny) and longs to join the Black Panthers (who he believes can relate to his supposed persecution). To Bicke, the world has been corrupted, and the only effective response - after sending Leonard Bernstein (a "pure and honest" man) his tape-recorded memoirs - is to orchestrate an attack on the White House via hijacked airplane that will, he imagines, awaken the world to American injustice.
There's a frightening familiarity to Bicke's plot to use a commercial airplane as a vehicle of revolutionary change, and Mueller - who favors close-ups of the squirrelly Bicke's twitchy, half-mad face and long shots in which the would-be assassin is tightly framed in the corners of the screen - effectively conjures up the ghost of 9/11 without ever explicitly alluding to the tragedies. Moreover, Penn, in the follow-up to his Academy Award-winning turn in Mystic River, delivers a disquieting performance as the unhinged Bicke. With his eyes regularly downcast or darting, his shoulders perpetually slumped, and a physical restlessness that mirrors his character's rapidly diminishing confidence and self-worth, Penn seems to physically shrink in stature as Bicke suffers one disappointment after another, his descent into madness precipitated less by one cataclysmic setback then by the accumulation of a life's worth of letdowns. Penn's performance is hampered by its unimaginative resemblance to Robert De Niro's psycho cabbie Bickle (whose last name is uncoincidentally similar to Bicke's), yet the actor ably conveys - through frazzled mannerisms that mask a rage desperate for an outlet - how Bicke has willfully blinded himself to his own culpability in his misery.
Written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy (whose script was inspired by the real-life assassination attempt of Samuel Byke), The Assassination of Richard Nixon parallels to 9/11 and vocalization of common anti-Bush sentiments are - at least according to the director - purely coincidental, as the project was initially conceived years ago. Perhaps. But regardless of the project's origins, there's an unavoidable contemporary undercurrent running throughout Mueller's film - a palpable outrage at the working class man's marginalized status, and disgust aimed directly at presidential dishonesty and misconduct that's meant to strongly allude to W's administration. Bicke's narration, filled with pleas about wanting to "stop the lies" and exclamations that "employment" is the new slavery, is hysterical and irrational. Yet as exhibited by one of my colleagues at the film's recent press screening - who, before the movie, half-jokingly said, "I'd like to see another Republican president assassinated" - such sentiments, especially when voiced by a Democratic activist like Penn, undoubtedly reflect many liberals' furious opposition to Bush.
Though such topicality is handled somewhat facilely, the primary problem with Mueller's affecting film is one of tone. Lurking beneath the film's levelheaded condemnation of Bicke is sympathy not for his behavior (which is indefensible), but for his unwavering belief in optimism, honesty, and integrity. While I too agree in principle with such ideals, the film's mournful portrayal of Bicke goes overboard in attempting to elicit our compassion for a delusional man who - because of his priggishness, his impractical demands on himself and those around him, and his arrogance and undeserved moral superiority - has absolutely no right to blame his situation on anything (racism, capitalism) or anyone (his wife, his boss, Nixon) but himself. Images of Bicke standing in his apartment building foyer in only underwear, paralyzed by the arrival of a loan application decision he's been feverishly awaiting, project a rueful pity for this beaten-down man, just as the film's post-tragedy montage of his empty apartment - set to the sad, lilting tune of a musical jewelry box - exudes sadness not just for the senseless violence Bicke has wrought, but also for the circumstances that propelled him on his murderous course. The Assassination of Richard Nixon would have us both understand and empathize with its despondent protagonist. Given Bicke's pathological, irrational avoidance of accountability, I could only do the former.
Take it with a pinch of salt.