Sean Penn gives a brilliant, compelling performance as Samuel Bicke, a desperate man whose world is falling apart around him. As his everyday life spirals out of control, we observe him lose his already slippery grasp on reality. "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is loosely based on the true story of a Baltimore man who tried to hijack a commercial airplane and fly it into the White House in 1974.
This chilling story unfolds grimly, like a terribly skewed canticle for the prototypical little man, squashed by the system. Writer, and first-time director Niels Mueller succeeds in helping us to understand, and even sympathize with Sam and his troubled life, without manipulating us into condoning his actions. It is 1973 and Sam Bicke's life is already beginning to crumble. His demise plays out against the politically volatile backdrop of the Nixon presidency. Sam and his wife Marie, (Naomi Watts) have been separated for over a year. He obviously loves her and adores their children. She is a hard working cocktail waitress, and it is apparent that one of the reasons their marriage has failed is Bicke's inability to hold down a steady job. When it becomes obvious that she has no interest in getting back together with him, Sam begins to stalk her - although he doesn't see it that way. There is a heartbreaking scene where he pays his family a "surprise visit," and is asked to leave and call before he comes over again. The children go in for dinner, the door closes and Bicke looks longingly at what was once his home. He goes into the yard, hugs his dog, and lovingly puts his hands on a tree in the yard. His anguish and loneliness are palpable.
Sam lost his job with his brother's tire company because he believes customers are being cheated by not being told the actual amount of profit the business makes on each tire purchased. He feels a more ethical approach would be to just tell customers the true percentage of profit and offer to split the difference - cut profits in half - rather than lie about giving non-existent special deals and offers. When his best friend tries to explain to him patiently, "It's not lying, it's business," Sam doesn't buy it. He is a man of integrity, a regular guy who works hard and wants a share of the American Dream. However, he lacks the brains and competency to become a successful businessman. Now, newly employed as an office furniture salesman, he discovers that his new boss, (a controlling, gruff Jack Thompson), wants him to lie to customers also. Nervous at work, aware that as a new employee he is being observed, he literally cringes before customers, while his boss subjects him to constant criticism.
The one bright spot in Bicke's life is his dream of opening an automobile tire company, operated out of an old school bus, with his auto mechanic friend, Bonny Simmons, a black auto mechanic, (superbly played by Don Cheadle). Sam applies for a bank loan with the Small Business Administration, but cannot get the government to review his application in less than the standard eight-to-ten weeks. Nervous, fearing his application will be denied, he begins to stalk the local loan administrator, obnoxiously pushing to have his paperwork processed faster.
Closely identifying with minorities, African Americans and Native Americans, because he feels persecuted and invisible, Bicke pays a visit to the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panthers to donate money. He suggests that they might double their membership if they allowed whites to join their organization and changed their name to The Zebras. It is comical, yes.....and, given Bicke's sincerity, it is heartbreaking also.
Sam receives notification, by mail, that the divorce proceedings Marie had instigated, seemingly unbeknownst to him, have been finalized. He had deluded himself into believing they were still working on their relationship. When he tries to contact her at home, she and the children are gone. His loan application is rejected. He quits his job. He totally loses it and explodes in violent, deluded rage.
He sees dishonesty, hypocrisy, everywhere, especially in the White House. Sam's boss told him, with admiration, that President Nixon is the world's greatest salesman, because he swindled the American people into voting for him - twice. In 1968 Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War. He did not. He ran on the same premise in 1972, and won again. The president also promised aid for the small businessman, and never delivered - at least not to Sam. Richard Nixon becomes the physical embodiment of all his disappointments, failures, a world gone wrong. When Sam sees news footage of a soldier that stole an Army helicopter and landed it on the front lawn of the White House, he realizes it would not have been difficult to crash it into the President's residence.
A self-described grain of sand on the beach of America, Sam chooses composer and orchestra leader, Leonard Bernstein, a man he idolizes, to tell his story. He makes and mails the musician tapes which begin: "Mr Bernstein: I have the utmost respect for you. Your music is both pure and honest and that is why I have chosen you to present the truth about me to the world." The film's score contains piano and violin sonatas by Beethoven, and the music provides a particularly moving backdrop, especially during these sequences.
This extremely well crafted movie offers insight into the mind of a man who doesn't possess the necessary skills to make it in the world, and who blames society for his own inadequacies. The televised news images of this turbulent period in American history, projected into his living room on a daily basis, further feed his delusions. Bicke's descent into madness is painful to watch. Although this is not a suspense thriller, but a character study - a drama about one man's inability to cope with the stress and harshness of everyday life - the movie is fraught with suspense and tension. One never knows when Bicke will snap. The film's conclusion, although inevitable, is still shocking.
A formidable film!