Few real-life personalities have received as much cinematic attention over the past quarter century then former president Richard Milhous Nixon. His political career, likeness and exploits have formed the foundation for films in such divergent genres as the biopic (Oliver Stone’s Nixon); the political thriller (Alan J. Pakula’s All The Presiden't Men) and satire (Andrew Fleming’s Dick). Niels Mueller’s directorial debut, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon adds assassin character-study to the list while bumping the 37th President’s full name onto the marquee. Like All The Presiden't Men, Nixon is not played by an actor here – intermittently shown giving speeches on television instead – but is the focus of the dogged obsessions and goals of the films’ protagonists.
Based on true events, Assassination depicts the slow, burning descent into madness of Samuel Bicke (Byck in reality), played to full tortured-soul effect by Sean Penn. When we meet Bicke, he is a struggling furniture salesman trying unsuccessfully – and at times cover-your-eyes awkwardly - to get his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), and his kids back from whom he has been separated. To prove his self-worth to his family and himself and to finally chase his American Dream, he attempts to take out a federal loan to start a mobile-tire business with his good friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle). What leads to Bick’s deterioration is an unassailable desire for pure, golden honesty from everyone around him, a rather odd quality for a man who has chosen sales as his gig. Bicke, of course, soon finds that everybody is bending the truth to earn a buck, festering into a slimy disease that irks him to his core. When his boss Jack (Jack Thompson) tells him that President Nixon is the greatest salesman (equals crook) in the country – having sold America on him twice with a war-ending platform he didn’t adhere to – Bicke finds the ultimate target for his anger (and we find a slight liberal-biased analogy to the current administration). Bicke’s goal thus shifts from American Dream to fame, elevation from what he calls being a tiny, unknown “grain of sand” on the beach that is the population of the United States.
That Mr. Penn is an excellent actor is an undeniable fact. He portrays Bicke as a pathetic simpleton, adding a natural slouch and unsure stutter to emphasize the peeling away, layer-by-layer, of Bicke’s sanity. Yet these traits and his overall performance, at times and especially in the hands of a first-time director, can get amplified into 1990’s Al Pacino-style overacting. But Mueller, from a script he co-wrote with Kevin Kennedy, gives an overall yeoman’s effort, achieving chilling effect in one disturbing point of view shot where Bicke holds a shaky gun at an unknowing bystander. Indeed, Mueller seems to want to channel a more famous would-be assassin character study, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, his “Bicke” a mere “l” away from “Bickle.” Yet where Travis Bickle is striking out against dirty, scummy, urban evil – personified by Harvey Keitel’s character Sport – Bicke’s beef is with dishonesty for profit, an inescapable fact-of-life that is as American as apple pie. Thus the film does not quite crawl under your skin and reach deep into your gut; while you oddly may find yourself identifying with and bloodthirsty for Bickle to kill, you find yourself pitying Bicke and hopeful that he fails.
The Assassination Of Richard Nixoncarries with it the kind of strained seriousness one may expect from a limited release film with a juicy cast that opens just before Oscar’s finish line. Unlike its namesake, however, I’m not sure the film will be remembered, for better or worse, long after its term is over.