The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Sprouting another fuzzy caterpillar on his upper lip and mustering another ever-incipient flop sweat, Sean Penn makes his umpteenth return trip to the town well of Loserville as Samuel Bicke, a simulacrum of real-life failed salesman-turned-would-be-domestic-terrorist Samuel Byck, who on Feb. 22, 1974, attempted to hijack a plane at BWI Airport. No one makes the unlikable likable, or at least compelling to watch, as well as Penn, and his remarkable performance here doesn’t disappoint. But despite his best efforts, a juicy supporting cast (Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts, the great Australian character actor Jack Thompson), rich material, and obvious care taken by rookie director Niels Mueller (who also co-wrote the script with Kevin Kenney), The Assassination of Richard Nixon fails.
As the story begins, Sam works selling office furniture for a bluff Silent Majority type named Jack Jones (Thompson), who preaches the gospel of Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale to his new employee. But the squirmy, maladroit Sam clearly has no clue how to win friends or influence people. He and his wife, Marie (Watts), have separated, and neither she nor their children seem pleased when he comes around; he’s estranged from his brother/former employer (Michael Wincott), seemingly his only family. Sam seems to have nothing going for him, in fact, except for his friendship with a mechanic named Bonny (Cheadle) and a cock-eyed scheme to open a mobile tire store.
As Sam sees it, he’s an honest man wronged by a crooked system that rewards lies and keeps the little guy down—especially him. He so identifies with the Black Panthers’ struggle against The Man, for example, that he visits the local chapter to express his solidarity (a scene played with sly wit by Mykelti Williamson as a Panther liaison). And, increasingly, he fixates on the president of the United States as the exemplar of what’s wrong with America and his life.
Penn and Mueller do some devastating work here as Sam’s feeble hold on the American Dream weakens. (Marie tells Sam to call her on Sunday sometime after 10 a.m.; cut to Sam sitting in his grotty bachelor apartment, clutching a bouquet, picking up the phone the instant the numbers on his clock flip over from 9:59.) But Mueller’s attempt at a somewhat sympathetic account is marred by the fact that Sam is also quite clearly hypocritical, maladjusted, and insane. The director carefully establishes a context for Sam’s ultimate actions (he zones out to TV news footage of Wounded Knee and other violent ’70s protests gone awry) but never manages to establish Sam as a soul worth saving, undercutting any potential tragedy as well as his lead actor’s superlative embodiment. The viewer of this well-made depress-fest winds up the biggest loser.