Sam Bicke (Sean Penn, "Mystic River") uses his idealism as a shield against the realities of life. After drifting from one job to another, his hopes hang on the approval of a small business loan so that he can realize his dream of a mobile tire business and reconcile with his wife Marie (Penn's "21 Grams" costar, Naomi Watts). But his fragile world begins to crumble around him and the televised lies of the country's president give Bicke a focus for his rage - he becomes intent on carrying out "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."
Screenwriter Niels Mueller ("Tadpole") was writing a fictional script about a salesman trying to get his wife and child back who ends up attempting to kill L.B.J. when he discovered the story of Samuel Byck, who on February 22, 1974, tried to hijack a commercial Delta DC-9 in order to crash it into Nixon's White House. (Yes, someone besides Osama bin Laden had this idea thirty years ago and this screenplay was written before 9/11.) The similarities between what the writer (with Kevin Kennedy)/director had already written and the true story were uncanny, so he merged his character piece with the facts of Byck's crime. Sean Penn gives a tour de force performance as this man who became a historical footnote that should cement his reputation as America's greatest living actor.
Mueller sets us up for his protagonist's downfall by beginning with the penultimate scene. Bicke, with Nixon flickering on the television set behind him, outlines his grievances to composer Leonard Bernstein via a reel to reel tape recorder, then drives to Baltimore Washington International Airport. A 'One year earlier' subtitle transports us back to simple Sam being groomed by his boss Jack (Jack Thompson, "The Sum of Us") in his new job as an office supply salesman.
Sam appears to be doing well at first, but his unannounced arrival at his former home is politely unwelcome by Marie and treated matter-of-factly by his two kids. Only the old family dog encourages Sam's presence. Mueller uses a two stage process to arrive at Sam's final fate. First, he slowly reveals the falsity of Sam's bravado. When Marie tells Sam to try calling her on Sunday after 10 a.m., he does so as his clock flips from 9:59. When he receives no answer, he spends his entire day waiting across the street, scurrying away in distress when his wife and kids finally arrive home in a Cadillac driven by another man. Complaints about his job (Sam hates the 'lies' inherent in sales) to best friend and hoped-for business partner Bonny (Don Cheadle, "Hotel Rwanda") are met with a gentle rebuke that Sam cannot continue to keep quitting jobs. This is our first indication that we are witnessing the last in a series of behavior that has landed Sam is his unfortunate present position.
Mueller's second, overlapping wave shows the slow dissolve of Sam's grip on reality. His first violent act is to throw a glass of water into the face of a customer who has groped Marie at the restaurant/bar where she works. This violence escalates when Sam trains a gun from within Bonny's auto body shop office on one of Bonny's white customers (Sam identifies with the Black man, even going so far as trying to join the Black Panthers, which he thinks should become 'Zebras' to increase their membership). Mueller also connects Bicke to Nixon within these two stages. The still receptive new salesman listens attentively when Jack explains why Richard Nixon is the best salesman of all, having won an election with the promise to end the war, not delivering, then getting reelected with the same rhetoric. Later, the real life event of February 17, 1974, where an Army private landed a stolen Army copter on the White House lawn, is used to give Bicke the idea of how to ensure that 'No one will ever forget me.'
Penn does a complete about face from his Oscar winning portrayal of "Mystic River's" potent Jimmy Markum. Here he seems to shrink within himself, becoming the type of small, ineffective person it is easy to overlook. As Sam, he makes you embarrassed for his attempts to apply sales techniques, which he does over earnestly. He is genuinely confused by people's inability to accept his naive ideas. It is painful to watch him lose the favor he'd already earned from a bank officer, then still retain hope for the loan. Penn never uses histrionics, but subtly shifts Sam's behavior as obstacles are placed before him.
Naomi Watts has had a bland year with "We Don't Live Here Anymore" and "I Heart Huckabees," but her former costar re-energizes her. She plays Marie as emotionally shielded, remaining kind to the husband she no longer loves until she sees him slipping into the same pattern that destroyed their marriage. Jack Thompson is dynamic as the back thumping salesman whose advice gradually becomes tinged with warning. Nick Searcy ("Runaway Jury") is opportunistically eager as Jack's son, also in the business. Michael Wincott ("The Crow") is almost unrecognizable as Sam's brother Julius, who visits to wash his hands of his brother.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Sleepy Hollow," "Like Water for Chocolate") maintains Sam's perspective throughout the film, giving the viewer Sam's sense of mounting paranoia. In one powerful shot, Lubezki moves his camera from a closeup of Nixon on an airport TV, to Sam's squinting, watching eyes before Sam pivots and looks out on the glass of a parked plane's cockpit, linking potential victim to weapon.
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is a quiet character study of a weak idealist and fearful revolutionary. Mueller's recreation of Byck's actual hijacking attempt may be the film's climax, but his coda, showing actual newscasts of the event in both Marie and Bonny's places of work while they both go about their jobs, speaks louder. Sam has been forgotten and the system remains the same.
A man is only remembered for his work” is the belief that Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) lived by in 1974. But, a broken marriage, bad luck and failings at his work place make him blame American Society for his woes. Sam’s tortured mind begins to focus this blame for his plight until only one thing will make things right - The Assassination of Richard Nixon.”
First time director Neils Mueller, co-scripting the story with Kevin Kennedy, tells the true life tale of a very troubled man whose fevered mind hatched a plot that was inspired by the 1973 incident when a stolen military helicopter landed on the White House lawn. From stolen helicopter to hijacked airliner, Sam alters the concept to an act of terrorism that would resonate three decades later – crash a stolen plane into the White House and kill the cause of all evil: President Richard M. Nixon.
Assassination” is, foremost, a complex character study, by Sean Penn, of a man who believes his life is on a rebound. But, he is estranged from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watt), who is trying to make a life for her and their kids – a life that does not involve the tortured Sam. He has a salesman’s job at a local furniture store but is constantly belittled by his boss (Jack Thompson) and forced to listen to self-help tapes. All the while, he is bombarded by the TV images of Richard Nixon, the man he blames as the real cause of all the world’s (and Sam’s) problems.
Sean Penn, arguably the best American actor now living and performing today, gives a seamless perf as a man who thinks his life is on the mend but, in reality, he is making a slow, steady descent into a mental hell that will totally consume him. Penn’s performance is the reason to see “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” I give it a B-.
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