The Assassination of Richard Nixon is an interesting collaboration between a first-time director, Niels Mueller, and a well-established lead actor, Sean Penn, who won the Oscar for Best Actor for his superb performance in last year's Mystic River. With another excellent performance in Nixon, Penn may yet again be a contender. But the strength of the film is also its chief weakness. Penn so dominates the screen that the film has the feel of an extended monologue. And, as impressive as is Penn's performance, his deranged character is insufficiently fascinating to hold our attention through the middle part of the film.
In a film based partly on a true story of the failed plot of a loner to highjack a plane from Baltimore and crash it into the Nixon White House, Penn is thoroughly believable as Samuel Bicke, a down-on-his-luck salesman who is equal parts Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman and Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Penn exhibits an uncanny ability to reflect his character's odd personality not just in his tone of voice, but especially in his subtle bodily mannerisms.
The film is structured, until the final frames, as an extended flashback, for which Bicke provides regular voiceover narration, in the form of an autobiographical justification, addressed to conductor Leonard Bernstein, because, as Bicke puts it, "his music is pure." Bicke addresses the conductor as "Mr. Bernstein" or "Maestro" (a habit that distracted me into thinking about a certain Seinfeld episode) and offers questions ("what happens to the land of plenty when the plenty is only for the few?" or "this is a good country with good people but what good is good in times like these?") and theories ("that's how they want us, alone, divided, weak" or "slavery never ended in this country; it just received a new name, employee").
Like Loman, Bicke is a salesman, in this case separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and with only occasional contact with their offspring. Bicke's disconnection from those around him and his fixation with his petty theories about the oppression of the little man render him ill-suited to any sort of work or normal family life. The comic possibilities are occasionally seized, particularly in the scene in which Bicke, having watched with growing interest the Black Panthers on TV, decides to visit a local headquarters and give them some advice. When he enters the office of the suddenly startled Panthers, he praises them but suggests that they are not maximizing their potential audience and that they might consider changing the name of the organization: "I just want to throw an idea out at you — zebras."
Before he loses his job, Bicke receives ample advice from his boss about success in the world of sales, about the need to be able to believe in anything. He supplies Bicke with tapes of Peale's famous Power of Positive Thinking. At one point, the boss gestures toward Nixon on the TV and identifies the president as the greatest salesman because he sold us in his first campaign on the promise that he would get us out of Vietnam, then he broke that promise, increased our involvement, but was still able to sell the same message in his second presidential campaign. Nixon appears with regularity on TV screens, as do snippets from the Watergate hearings. When Bicke finally loses control and decides on his deadly mission to make sure that he will "not be forgotten," the moment coincides with Nixon issuing his famous line, "The American people have to know that their president is not a crook." What precisely are we supposed to make of the role of Nixon in the film?
As is his off-screen wont, Penn has made a number of assertions about the political lessons of the film. He has said, "we're using that character to poetically tell, as films do, the story of something that occurred relative to our society that seems to have very pressing applications today." Such as? Although the "final script was written in 1999, before George W. Bush was elected," the "political anxiety level in the movie does seem to be remarkably similar to this past year." Penn's theory is that Nixon and Bush share "boldness in how they emote their insecurities." If this seems like a desperate stretch, that's only because it is.
The film itself is not really marred by Penn's attempt to make instant political capital out of it. It has other problems, one of which is that it so explicitly calls to mind Loman and especially Bickle. The alienated salesman, desperate simultaneously for success and personal integrity, has been done already. And nothing in the deranged loner routine could expect to compete with the mood, artistry, or drama of Scorsese's masterpiece, Taxi Driver.
Beyond these obvious antecedents, Bicke is reminiscent of another character indelibly etched in the American psyche, Holden Caulfield from Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Bicke's greatest emotional connection is with children. In scenes with children, he is at once a sympathetic, pathetic, and mildly frightening. Obsessed with innocence lost, Bicke is drawn to the simplicity of children but in a way that is unhealthy, inappropriately needy for an adult, especially a parent. Indeed, Bicke is in the grips of an immature, romantic, and finally deranged vision of the ordinary man and the American dream. No one who cares for him in the film ever comes close to adopting his theories; audiences are apt to have even less sympathy. How is it then that Penn could imagine Bicke as a vehicle for the expression of the political and social frustrations of our time?
The point the film actually makes concerns the danger lurking within such irrational romanticism, a danger that the obsession with innocence can, once it enters the political order, flip over into violence against what it takes to be the corrupting forces of civilized power. Whatever shred of political principle is left is quickly engulfed by irrational rage that lashes out, not at a well-chosen target, but at whatever crosses its path. There are important political and social lessons here, but they are apparently lost on Sean Penn, political commentator.