On a sunny day in 1974, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn), a man out of work, without a family, and without any hope, arrived at Baltimore Washington International Airport with one task — to kill President Richard Nixon. As he starts his way toward the terminal, the audience is taken back a year in time to witness Bicke’s collapse into insanity in his failed search to achieve the American dream. Thus is the story of The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
The film is narrated by Bicke himself through audiotapes he mails to Leonard Bernstein before his assassination attempt. (I guess he was a big fan of West Side Story) In his tapes, Bicke rants on how he is surrounded by bullies and liars. Bicke was taught that to get ahead, a person had to work hard in life and be honest. Instead, all he sees is dishonest people and bullies running the show: his jerk of a boss, government bureaucracy that denies him a small business loan, and of course Tricky Dick himself. To deal with his disappointment, Bicke reaches out to his family to help him. However, his wife has divorced him, married another man and taken the children with her. It seems that the only friend that Bicke has is Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), with whom he is trying to start his own business. However, even Bonny starts to disassociate himself from his partner as Bicke looses more and more of his sense of reality.
At the center of the film is Sean Penn. In the past, I have never really been one of the majority that continually praise Penn. While I think that Penn is a good actor, he has only played characters that require him to go over the top. From Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Jimmy Markum in Mystic River Penn has filled roles that have required him to scream, jump around, and do anything except perfect subtle acting skills. While in Assassination Penn once again plays a character that has some sort of mental issue, he does actually manage to communicate what is going on under the surface in the mind of Bicke.
Certainly deserving mention for their talented supporting roles are Cheadle, Naomi Watts as Bicke’s ex-wife, and Michael Wincott as Bicke’s brother, Julius. The scene where Julius confronts his brother in a dark apartment room is one of the most eerie in the film. It doesn’t hurt that Wincott gets to use his trademark deep gravely voice.
Assassination has been the brainchild of its director and writer Niles Mueller. Assassination appropriately marks Mueller’s first big success. Mueller chose to film the majority of the movie using handheld cameras. The often slightly shaking camera movements, while sometimes annoying, helps convey the feeling of instability that carries throughout the entire film. Mueller skillfully uses camera angles to show Bicke’s feelings of insignificance, just watch how “in your face” his boss becomes when our protagonist is being scolded. More impressive than Mueller’s direction is his screenplay, co authored by Kevin Kennedy. The script is methodical and well spaced, which makes Bicke’s dissent into madness even more effective and painful to watch.
Comparisons to Taxi Driver are inevitable. In fact it almost appears that Mueller was attempting to completment Scorsese’s classic. For example compare the main characters’ names from both films: Travis Bickle and Sam Bicke. Both films deal with the encroaching and increasingly violent culture that emerged out of the 1970’s and both explore an isolated man’s dissent into madness. However, while Taxi Driver is almost a primary source of cinema’s take on the 1970’s, Assassination is an effective look back on the tumultuous time that is quite appropriate and equally haunting in our own times.