Without the presence of the great Sean Penn, The Assassination of Richard Nixon would completely fall apart. The directorial debut of screenwriter Niels Mueller, Nixon has the potential to be a great story but ends up only with a great performance propping up the slightest of plots.
You'd expect a film with the title The Assassination of Richard Nixon to be politically charged, but Mueller deliberately scales back the politics in telling the true story of Samuel Bicke (Penn), who in 1974 botched his plot to fly a jet into the White House and kill the president. Bicke was less an activist than simply a desperate man, one whose life was spinning out of control and who needed someone to blame for the problems he didn't know how to solve. That someone was Nixon, but it could just as well have been another political figure if Bicke had lived in a different era.
Instead of political treatises, we're treated to Bicke's narration in the form of lengthy, obsessive tapes he made to send to composer Leonard Bernstein. He rambles on about integrity and fairness but never elucidates a coherent political philosophy. Indeed, his frustrations seem based less on politics than on his own failures, including his marriage, his job as a furniture salesman and his attempt to start a business with his best-—and only—friend (Don Cheadle).
Bicke is a singularly pathetic man, but Penn manages to make him both sympathetic and repulsive, unable as he is to engage in even the simplest social interaction without collapsing into a bundle of incoherent, nervous rambling. Supposedly, the actual Bicke was a schizophrenic, and that certainly would explain his social awkwardness and fixation on Nixon. But Mueller doesn't use the schizophrenia angle, so we're meant to see Bicke as someone fed up with the system that keeps him down, an oppressive government that won't give him a loan for his ill-conceived mobile tire sales business, that keeps him from his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) through its system of restraining orders and divorce decrees, that forces him into a degrading job selling second-rate office furniture.
There's no better embodiment of this system than Nixon, who's treated as an almost mythical figure. Bicke's oily boss evokes Tricky Dick as the ultimate salesman, one who sold the country on withdrawal from Vietnam, didn't deliver, and then sold them on it again. Nearly every television set in the movie is showing Nixon giving a speech or engaging in some sort of presidential activity, as if the only station Bicke gets is the Nixon Channel.
Despite Penn's evocative portrayal of the desperate Bicke, you can figure out from the first five minutes exactly where the film is going. Bicke isn't going to win his wife back, isn't going to get his small business loan, isn't going to keep his job, and isn't going to succeed in his plot against the president. The film's last five minutes are shocking and graphic, but the buildup is neither suspenseful nor all that interesting.
The actual Bicke (whose last name was spelled Byck) protested in front of the White House wearing a Santa suit, a moment immortalized in Stephen Sondheim's musical, Assassins. But Mueller isn't interested in that side of his character, and in making the film a character study rather than a broader statement about the times, he succeeds only in boring the audience into submission.
Still, it's hard not to be fascinated by Penn's subtle, twitchy performance, and its rightful comparisons to Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle (perhaps the reason for the spelling change) in Taxi Driver. But while Bickle was unpredictable and ultimately sociopathic, Bicke is obvious and sad, and it's hard to identify with him as the main character. Penn owns every scene he's in, which is every single scene in the movie, and talented actors Watts and Cheadle are given little to work with in their small parts. Perhaps if Mueller had expanded both Bicke's world and his own, he could have made a film that transcended its predictable story arc. This one is, like Samuel Bicke, a lot of bluster with nothing much to say.