This is a study of the psychological breakdown of a man reaching extremes
of self-worthlessness sufficient to perform a deranged act that could only
lead to his own destruction. It is purportedly "inspired by a true story"
but contains a feature that seems to be inspired by 9/11, namely, the concept
of a plane's use as a lethal weapon.
Except that we're given a flash-forward introduction to Sam Bicke (Sean Penn)
in the process of preparing for his final act, he would seem to be just
another ordinary individual. As low achievers go, he seems to be trying as
much as his capabilities allow. The thing that singles him out for attention
is his conviction that there's a high level conspiracy against the little
On a tape addressed to the composer Leonard Bernstein with the intention of
explaining his actions to a man he highly admires, he refers to himself as a
grain of sand among many who are controlled by the powerful. Bicke's tape
tirade serves as a stream of consciousness narration as we go back to the
beginning of his downslope, when one disappointment after the other
undermines his pride and self-respect.
He tries, in typical loser fashion, to reclaim his marriage and family when
it's clear to see that his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) has moved on. As his
behavior becomes more and more aggressively desperate, even the kids become
estranged. Pappy's getting unhinged.
His brother Julius (Michael Wincott), whom he tries to avoid as much as
possible, berates him for his life of professional failure and the need to
bail him out of characteristically badly judged situations.
He's got a job as an office furniture saleman that he's desperately trying to
hold on to despite his boss's (Jack Thompson) constant hectoring and
lecturing. The paycheck he gets is all he's got to maintain a little
pride until he really gets back on his feet by opening a business of
door-to-door tire sales with his mechanic friend and supposed partner Bonny
(Don Cheadle). But, his dream of success rests on his application for a
bank loan, a process that goes on way too long. Barely holding it together
as things descend from bad to worse, the need for patience is a yet another
of his missing traits.
Everywhere he goes, Nixon is on TV addressing the nation in an effort to stem
the tide against a loss of office. Nixon is on TV at home, at Marie's home,
on the display TVs at work, everywhere. And to Bicke, Nixon grows to symbolize
all who are against him -- all the high born people who are keeping the grains
of sand in their place. Nixon, Bicke claims, is a master salesman for
swindling the American people in two elections. He is, finally, the villain
who will pay for his sins against the common folk.
Bicke may not be the only man who sees Nixon that way, but he's one guy who's
alienation has crossed over the threshold of sanity. He will seek an extreme
form of vengeance against the man and against his feelings of puny worth.
The performances are first-rate with Penn turning in another intense piece of
work. Watts, pairing up again with Penn after their successful match in "21 Grams" is as gutty and real as
always but the script doesn't come close to helping us see what she once saw
in her guy. Jack Thompson ("Breaker Morant"), as fulfilling a character
actor as there is on the planet, doesn't strike a false note as the superior,
baiting boss mocking an underling.
The film is realistically captured by the naturalistic lighting of
cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and is a well structured but thinly drawn
narrative by debuting writer-director Niels Mueller who previously wrote "Tadpole." Interestingly, it's
produced by Alfonso Cuaron of "Y
Tu Mama Tambien" and "Harry
Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" fame.
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is a serious work with good intentions,
providing a showcase opportunity for very significant talent, which accounts
for it finding the necessary backing. It will also find its arthouse
audience. But its theme and derived quality inspires me to wonder about the
need for this material in the current movie marketplace.
~~ Jules Brenner