You have to hand it to Sean Penn. Okay, you don’t absolutely have to, and if you’re a red stater through and through, you certainly won’t want to, but give him some credit. After being pilloried in the press for visiting Iraq under Saddam’s reign, torn apart by housecats in a puppet movie, and having made himself look even worse by writing a moody “open letter” to Team America creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone based on an off-hand remark they made in an interview, a less gutsy man might back down just a tad. Heck, even Michael Moore’s Web site went dark for a few days after November 2.
But not Penn. Heading back into multiplexes just in time for Oscar season, he returns to the big screen playing a man with a grudge, a man who has been so put-upon that he takes out his wrath on a divisive Republican president — one, we might add, who has been reelected despite his continued involvement in a war that seems to be going nowhere. And how does Penn’s character manifest this wrath? Why, he plots to hijack a commercial passenger plane and crash it into the White House. Merry Christmas, moviegoers!
Okay, so the president in question is Richard M. Nixon, not George W. Bush. It doesn’t take a critic to draw the obvious parallels, but since you’re already reading … yeah, there’s a similarity or two. Whether Osama bin Laden was inspired by Sam Bicke, the real-life would-be assassin played by Penn, is open to question, but it has already been remarked by less tactful reporters that Bicke (actually, Byck) was ahead of his time in the jetliner-kamikaze department.
Whether or not you’re up on your ’70s history, it should be pretty common knowledge that Nixon ended up dying of old age, so you might suspect that The Assassination of Richard Nixon isn’t quite a suspense thriller. Rather, it’s a sort of updated Death of a Salesman. Bicke sells office furniture for a living, but he isn’t good at it; he loathes the fact that a successful salesman is compelled to stretch the truth in order to make more money. President Nixon, he decides, is the greatest salesman in the world: “He made a promise [to end the Vietnam war if elected], he didn’t deliver, then he sold us the exact same promise all over again.”
Bicke intends to prove that an honest salesman can succeed, and he knows just the thing. Together with his mechanic friend Bonny (Don Cheadle), he has a plan to start a door-to-door tire-sales business, using a gutted and refitted schoolbus to provide home service. The problem is, he doesn’t quite have the patience to lay the groundwork, and things don’t exactly work out right. Meanwhile, his family life is falling apart, with wife Marie (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts) preparing to file for divorce.
Penn’s lead performance is the main attraction here, and it’s a fine piece of work — far superior to his overly showy Oscar-winning role last year. Yeah, maybe Bicke cries a little too frequently, but at least he does it at home, quietly, rather than in front of a big crowd while screaming, “Is that my daughter in there?” and punching policemen in the head. Ah, those Academy members love the showy stuff — what can you do? If you’re not one of those people, and you happen to like nuance in your characters, welcome home. Fans of Sideways and The Aviator, take note: Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio are executive producers on this film. Alfonso Cuarón also has a producer credit. If you don’t trust all three of those names, surely you respect the judgment of at least one of ’em? If that’s not enough, consider that it was filmed partly in Oakland.
One of Bicke’s more amusing aspects is his weird fixation on black people, not in a racist way, but in that baby-boomer “I understand your suffering” inadvertent condescension unique to the era. Frequently bullied by his boss (Jack Thompson, best known as Cliegg Lars in Attack of the Clones), Bicke figures that he’s being held down by the Man just like all the brothers, and he even tries to join the Black Panthers at one point. Bonny tries to set him straight, but Bicke is unable to see himself as anything but a victim.
Tadpole screenwriter Niels Mueller makes his feature directorial debut here, and handily proves his adeptness with actors. Even Nick Searcy, often relegated to bit roles, gets a chance to shine as the loan manager who must endure Bicke’s incessant harassment. Mueller doesn’t belabor the subtext of the story because he doesn’t have to; when Bicke echoes the commander-in-chief’s denial that he’s a crook, there’s no soundtrack sting or flashback to rub it in. Mueller just lets it sit there, counting on Penn to convey the point and the audience to pick up on it. That’s good filmmaking.