This article was updated on May 19, 2004.
A muted character study about a sad sack who channels his emotional and career frustrations into an attempted act of political violence, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” fails to stir much involvement or sympathy. A good cast led by an unusually subdued Sean Penn provides the lion’s share of interest in a tale whose evident attraction to an illustrious array of talent on both sides of the camera fails to translate into viewer appeal. Star names will probably snare this independent drama a theatrical shot, but B.O. prospects are slim.
Presence of 10 producers, including the likes of the Cuaron brothers, Alexander Payne and Leonardo Di Caprio, suggest a twisty road to the screen for this odd project, which feels weirdly out of time and place at this particular point. Title spells out the failure of the protagonist’s misguided ambition from the get-go, and, with little compelling reason to engage in his succession of fumbles and blown opportunities, it’s very hard to get on board with this relentlessly one-note venture.
Inspired by a true story, script by first-time director Niels Mueller, who co-wrote “Tadpole,” and Kevin Kennedy shows Samuel Bicke (Penn) preparing to enter the Baltimore-Washington Airport on Feb. 22, 1974, with obviously bad intentions. Two weeks earlier, Bicke has tape recorded an explanation of his upcoming actions to his idol Leonard Bernstein, who he is entrusting to present his reasons to the world; he is, as he puts it, “a grain of sand” who has found a way assert himself by destroying the all-powerful beings that oppress him.
It’s a discomforting notion, now more than ever, of course, but it doesn’t gather any special resonance through the telling of Bicke’s pathetic life. An ineffectual salesman in an office furniture showroom, Bicke is handed books like “The Power of Positive Thinking” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by his boom-voiced boss (vet Aussie thesp Jack Thompson in an enjoyable Ned Beatty-like turn), but Bicke seems like a man hopelessly miscast where people skills are required.
Bicke has a garage mechanic buddy (Don Cheadle) he can sort of confide in, but certainly he is far from adept at dealing with his estranged wife Marie (a brunette Naomi Watts, good) and his kids. His groveling attempts to curry favor with her merely drive her further away. “All I want is a little piece of the American dream,” Bicke moans as he assesses his forlorn lot in life.
Then one day Bicke is awakened politically by an appearance of Black Panther David Hilliard on TV, reacting naively as if he had never heard a word of radical discourse before. In a scene played for goofy humor, Bicke walks into a local Panthers office, professes his commitment to the masses and makes a proposal to a man willing to listen to him (Mykelti Williamson) that they merge into a group called the Zebras, to include blacks and whites.
When the Panthers fail to get back to him on that one, Bicke shaves off his moustache and begins talking to himself in the mirror, which merely invites unflattering comparisons with “Taxi Driver” that have already been raised by the similarity of the man’s name with Travis Bickle. Informed that his marriage has been dissolved, he’s been discharged at work and with Watergate unfolding on television in the background, Bicke’s tenuous grasp on a tolerable life is lost. Upbraided by his disaffected brother (a bearded, powerful Michael Wincott) after attempting a disastrous business scam, Bicke sets his vengeful sights on the president, who isn’t long for his job anyway.
The man’s amateurish attempt to hijack a plane and force it to crash into the White House is a total botch, although the scene provokes memories of more recent and all-too-successful like ventures. Story’s violent resolution leaves the viewer with nothing to take away except for the overriding feeling that making the film was a bad idea all around.
Penn’s magnetism and hesitant line delivery create what interest there is, although the whole picture suffers from a central figure who can never get it together on any level. Mueller and his proficient collaborators, including ace lenser Emmanuel Lubezki, editor Jay Cassidy and production designer Lester Cohen, have mounted a pro package with decent period detail, and the score by Steven Stern, abetted by Beethoven excerpts, emphasizes cello refrains to achieve a predominantly mournful tone.