Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a bitter pill about an everyman fed up with the lies inherent in the American Dream, hoping to strike the zeitgeist in a time of political furor. If you’re from one of the blue states, it’s a disquieting (and perhaps misappropriated) release of impotent rage. If you’re from one of the red states, buckle your seatbelt—Nixon the liar stands in for another so-called swindler. When President Dick lies to the people and gets reelected for a second term, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) gets mad as hell—and he’s not gonna take it anymore. A failed husband and a lousy salesman, Sam attempts one small thing to make a difference: hijack a plane and crash it into the White House. But for all Assassination‘s topicality (predicting Bush’s second victory and analyzing 9/11), its subject isn’t someone that we identify with. This outsider’s grand-scale dreams become more of an idle curiosity for the viewer than a distorted reflection of who we are. One wishes Penn’s effective slow-burn performance reached the heights of kabuki histrionics he’s been known for at his most indulgent—he never cuts as close to the bone as rival De Niro’s Travis Bickle or Rupert Pumpkin. Nonetheless, Assassination occasionally taps into contemporary disappointments with welcome acidity. In his most incendiary moment, Sam Bicke loses his head and shrieks at the television set, “It’s all about money, Dick! It’s all about money!” When reacting to the world at large that indirectly crushes him, an alienated Sam becomes a shrieking voice in the darkness. Less effective are the domestic scenes where he tries to preserve the love of his wife (Naomi Watts), or his daily grind as a self-loathing, incompetent furniture salesman. Somehow, those floundering attempts at naturalism and psychological explanation feel like padding. What’s really itching at Sam Bicke is something far more disturbing: the shame of our deceit-riddled history. As the film is eager to point out, this one’s “Inspired by a True Story.”
- 95 min
- Niels Mueller
- Niels Mueller, Kevin Kennedy
- Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Michael Wincott, Mykelti Williamson, Naomi Watts
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