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Sean Penn as Samuel Bicke
Naomi Watts as Marie Bicke
Don Cheadle as Bonny Simmons
Jack Thompson as Jack Jones
Brad Henke as Martin Jones
Jared Dorrance as Sammy Jr.
Nick Searcy as Ford
Jenna Milton as Ellen
Mariah Massa as Julie
Niels Mueller's top-notch drama parallels the early work of Scorsese, mainly due to another memorable performance by Sean Penn as an everyman who takes drastic actions to keep his life from falling apart.
Based on a true story, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a failed salesman whose dreams of starting his own business and reuniting with his estranged wife (Naomi Watts) are cut short, setting him on a downwards spiral that ultimately leads him to stage an attack on the White House.
A common theme from the movies of 2004 is that of the individual unable to cope with society, creating desperate situations where they need to fight back. Oddly, few of the people who might appreciate these cutting-edge films-The Machinist and The Final Cut come to mind-have seen them. The Assassination of Richard Nixon by first-time director Niels Mueller is different in that it's based on a true story, so there's less room to explore ideas outside of its 1974 setting. After years of research, Mueller had difficulty getting the project financed until he found support from Alexander Payne, Leonardo DiCaprio and Alfonso Cuaron, all who came on board as producers to help Mueller tell this difficult story.
At the core of his drama is Samuel Bicke, having just started a new job as an office furniture salesman after being separated from his wife. It doesn't take long to learn that his demanding boss expects him to lie in order to be successful, but he decides to stick it out until he can attain his dream of opening a mobile tire shop with his mechanic friend Bonny, played by the always excellent Don Cheadle. When his bank loan is turned down, Sam blames it on racism in an attempt to relate to the imagined plight of his black friend. He even tries to join the Black Panther party, suggesting a "zebra" offshoot, much to the bemusement of the suspicious recruiter. His problems at home and the job ultimately lead him to resent the country's "best salesman", President Richard Nixon, and he decides to make a name for himself by doing something about it. Sam's follies are narrated by his recorded plea to, of all people, composer Leonard Bernstein, trying to explain why things led to his plan to attack the White House.
While you can certainly feel sorry for Bicke's situation, the only reason you're able to give his questionable actions the benefit of the doubt is because of Sean Penn's fine performance. It's almost impossible not to compare his character to some of De Niro's more memorable roles like Rupert Pupkin from The King of Comedy and the similarly named Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, who likely got his name from the original Sam Bicke. The character allows Penn a lot more room to showcase the range of his talents than both of the films he did last year, and his performance is what turns this drama into something special.
Penn starts out as a mild-mannered wallflower, complete with ugly '70s moustache, but by the end, he's a full-on sociopath as all of his good intentions are thwarted at every turn. The hardest part of Sam's mental deterioration to watch is his inability to deal with the realities of losing his family, wallowing in denial that his marriage is over. Penn's 21 Grams co-star Naomi Watts, barely recognizable in dark hair, plays a very different role as Bicke's ex-wife, trying to get it through to him that she has moved on, and you can barely hold it against her. Even though they only have a few scenes together, it's nice to see these two great actors on screen together again so soon. Another strong performance comes from Aussie actor Jack Thompson as Sam's overbearing boss, who brings some unexpected comic moments as he tries to teach Sam lessons in salesmanship as his grinning son Marty looks on. He is the only true "bad guy" in the piece, taking advantage of Sam's passive nature.
The movie probably wouldn't have worked nearly as well with a lesser actor than Penn, but Mueller's amazing script deserves respect not only for the excellent dialogue, but also due to the parallels it draws between the current climate of the country and that of thirty years ago. Mueller's amazing attention to detail in recreating the era, from the archival footage of the title character to the reel-to-reel recorder used by Bicke, is especially impressive, giving the film a distinctive look.
Each successive blow to Sam's self-esteem is heightened with scenes we've all known to well like checking the mailbox for that all-important loan approval that never comes. Ultimately, Sam's mental health deteriorates and the film's steady pace of dialogue builds to a jarring climax as Sam's masterplan finally comes to fruition. This ending makes you realizes how hard it must have been to get a distributor for the movie in the paranoia of a post 9/11 world, and it's ironic that the film's distributor ThinkFilm is a mere stone's throw away from the former site of the World Trade Center.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is an extremely strong debut that should strike a chord with anyone who ever felt oppressed by the system, but it's also a great warning to anyone who thinks they can do anything about it.