From its doom-laden screenplay to its shaky-cam film-school look to its ersatz Philip Glass score, the fact-based drama The Assassination of Richard Nixon just screams out how important it is. And it really could have been.
The film certainly flirts with importance, and there’s an undeniable creepy relevance about an assassination attempt that involves hijacking a plane in order to drop a gasoline bomb on the White House. For that matter, there are good things about the movie, but it finally trips itself up on its two-fisted seriousness — not to mention first-time director and co-screenwriter Niels Mueller’s insistence on creating a role for Sean Penn that’s entirely comprised of affording the actor scenes that allow him to do “all the things Penn does so well.”
Penn plays Samuel Bicke, a struggling office-furniture salesman with a failed marriage who, more than anything, wants his piece of the American Dream. By setting the story in 1974 when Nixon’s presidential empire was crumbling around him (the real assassination attempt was made in 1972), Mueller stacks the deck more than a little, since this allows the unraveling Nixon mendacity to neatly — too neatly — dovetail with Bicke’s descent into insanity.
That, however, is less a problem than the character of Bicke himself and the movie’s wrong-headed insistence on never cracking a smile. Bicke is simply too much the ueber-loser — hard to identify with and impossible to like. He’s pitiable, but he’s also such a childish monument to denial that he quickly becomes tiresome.
Separated from a wife (Naomi Watts) (for what turns out to be two years!) who clearly wants no part of him, Bicke’s persistent fantasy that they’re “working things out” transports him from the realm of sympathetic to something perilously close to a stalker. Similarly, his idea of honesty in business is just this side of infantile, and his business scheme so bizarre that it belongs in a screwball comedy. As presented, the character is trapped in the myth of the American Dream, but it’s so completely Bicke’s own undigested fantasy of that myth that it lacks any sense of universal truth.
As crafted, the screenplay is all too often a series of the kind of Oscar-bait set-pieces that are threatening to turn Penn into a self-caricature.
Most remarkable in all this is the presence of Alexander Payne (About Schmidt) and Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien) among the producers — two filmmakers who know how to make serious movies without toppling over into ham-handed heaviness. That neither of them pointed out the strained somberness of it all to Mueller is astonishing. That no one involved saw the rich opportunities for satire inherent in material that tackles a success ethic grounded in reading The Power of Positive Thinking, How to Win Friends and Influence People and self-help tapes — not to mention a “hero” who wants to tell the world his story by sending it to Leonard Bernstein — is equally hard to understand.
Despite these reservations — and it’s a lot to overlook — The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a fascinating look at the American Dream and the way in which its inextricable ties to a success ethic automatically leaves an awful lot of people in a seriously disenfranchised state. The film deserves a lot of credit for tackling this worthwhile subject. And it’s also notable that the material is handled in such a way as to make clear that the 30 years that separate the action of the film from its making have not produced any significant change in the shortcomings of that idealized goal. But it’s also unfortunate that these themes should be housed in such an obvious, humorless, pointlessly hopeless story.
Rated R for language and a scene of graphic violence.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke