Title: The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Director: Niels Mueller
Screenwriters: Kevin Kennedy, Niels Mueller
Starring: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle
If Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon was envisioned as an intricate, skillful portrait of an deranged man then it is pretty much an unqualified success. It should be said, though, that the film undercuts any attempt to become incisive social commentary a la Taxi Driver by immediately and irrevocably making its protagonist utterly deranged, doing such a thorough job of convincing us that he is insane and possibly a psychopath that we view his actions clinically rather than sympathetically. If we are supposed to feel outrage at the establishment that drives Sam Bicke into his murderous delirium, well, I prefer the schizophrenia explanation.
But the movie is strong, with a tremendous performance from Sean Penn, who leaves behind the lugubrious moping of his last two roles in favor of profoundly compelling character work. Penn is no stranger to screen mental afflictions (remember I Am Sam?) but here he doesn’t have the benefit of gimmicks. As written, his character has the potential to be obnoxious, and Penn isn’t afraid to veer in that direction, but everything he does seems to serve the creation of a fully-formed personage rather than the whims of the screenwriter. That Sam Bicke isn’t a symbol or a caricature but a man is this film’s saving grace.
Though The Assassination of Richard Nixon destroys Bicke’s credibility from the first shot, what it doesn’t do, crucially, is make him into a joke. The events of the plot hold many opportunities to play Bicke’s plight for laughs, or at least pity laughs, but Mueller never succumbs to this temptation. At one point, an increasingly desperate Bicke becomes rather monomaniacal about starting up a movable tire store, incessantly pestering a government loan officer with his story. What makes these scenes special is the way people react to Bicke and his unrelenting assaults and appeals: they do what employees of a government agency would most likely do, attempting to appease him, putting him off, eventually treating him like a child. Finally, the loan officer sits him down in the lobby of the building and patiently explains to him that he needs to leave without coming back.
. It’s a fiercely painful scene, and though it doesn’t gain Bicke any respect, it affords him our sympathy. He is convinced that he is entitled to what he wants and that the world is a festering pustule of injustice; we can see that he’s to a large extent off his rocker, but we must also admit that at times we’ve felt, and perhaps even acted, the same way. What is most disturbing about the manifestations of his insanity is how downright normal they appear in individual moments. One of the things that drove him to madness is a motivational tape to help him become a better salesman, and the mantras the tape repeats are eerily familiar.
Mueller gives the movie a volatile aesthetic, with an unsettled camera that does a lot of following Penn around. The look of the film is bleak, with lots of greys and dark blues, yet Mueller doesn’t stylize his universe, going instead for a distinctive, gritty realism. The attention to detail is evident — watch the scene in the Black Panther Party office — and it helps that this character exists in the real world rather than a world created for him, which would probably have rendered the film meaningless.
As it stands, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a meticulous, unsettling character study that is all the stronger for its verisimilitude. Mueller won’t become famous as a stylist, but he has a flair for cinematic reflections of the real world.