In The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sean Penn gives a masterful performance as a working-class misfit, disillusioned with American society, who decides he must kill the president of the United States.
Neils Mueller’s directorial debut comes through with a depressing biopic that dives into a topic deeply ingrained in the American psyche. Presidential assassins have fascinated the U.S. for nearly 150 years. How seemingly normal members of society have been driven to insanity and attempt to kill the nation’s leaders has mystified generations.
These criminals have become integral chapters in American lore, in some cases presidential assassins all but surpassing the fame of assassinated presidents. Who were James Garfield and William McKinley compared to John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald?
The phenomenon has found its way to the arts, most notably with Stephen Sondheim’s 1991 musical Assassins, in which eight would-be presidential assassins (four successful, four not), sing about the heroics of their deeds.
One of those men was Samuel Byck, a failed salesman who in 1974 tried to highjack a 747 from Baltimore International Airport and crash it into the White House in a botched attempt to kill Richard Nixon. Mueller plunges into the mind of the would-be killer, depicting the typical psychosis of such a man and showing the abrupt descent from ordinary man to madman.
It is a classic tale of a down-and-out loser. Mueller could not have found a more suitable actor to portray the dark and disturbed character than Penn, perhaps the most moody and enigmatic actor of his time, who turns in another Oscar-worthy performance as a man who has lost hope in everything and desperately wants to make a difference.
In the span of a year, we witness the slow destruction of Sam Bicke (the spelling of his last name was curiously altered for the film), from the agonizing separation from his wife, to the growing estrangement from his brother, to his professional failures as a salesman. Everywhere he looks he sees injustice and deceit. All he longs for is a piece of the American Dream.
But as Bicke’s world disintegrates, the dream turns into delusions of grandeur, and his resolve begins to focus on his chosen scapegoat, the man he deems responsible for the injustices in his life: Nixon. “The greatest salesman in history,” Bicke’s slimy salesman boss calls him.
As failures turn to paranoia, Bicke develops an obsession with Leonard Bernstein, recording messages to the conductor in which he laments on the failure of “the system.”
When all else fails, and his country has let him down, he feels all he has left is to kill the president.
Penn joins forces once again with Naomi Watts, who plays his bitter and rejecting wife (the two starred together in 21 Grams), and features strong supporting performances by Don Cheadle (who plays his best friend, Bonny), Jack Thompson, Michael Wincott and Mykelti Williamson.
While the film lacks a certain element of surprise — the ending is known, for example, insofar as Nixon was not assassinated — The Assassination of Richard Nixon compensates with an insightful exploration of a troubled man’s mind.
Like most potential assassins, Bicke, too, wants to be recognized and appreciated. The film will likely do nothing to diminish his place as a footnote in history. It does, however, reveal the dangerous process a man can go through, and it makes one wonder how many men like this are out there today.