The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

Sean Penn as Samuel J. Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon

The Penn is Mightier than the Bicke

I've always felt that Sean Penn was the actor to take over from Robert De Niro, not only does Penn often act in a similar style but he also takes on complex characters which would make many an actor cower away. Which brings me to "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" a movie which in some ways is Penn's "Taxi Driver" with him playing a character who has become disillusioned with society and pushed over the edge by everything he sees. But "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is no "Taxi Driver", the story may be influenced by true events and deal not only with a man who has become disillusioned but it is a dour story as it takes us through what is basically Samuel J. Bicke suffering a break down. Yet despite this story it features Sean Penn delivering one of his best characterisations a difficult task when the man he is playing is basically a loser who blames everyone else for his failures.

Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn - Mystic Riverr) is struggling with life as his is quickly falling to pieces. His job as an office furniture salesman depresses him especially with his bosses expecting him to lie, his attempts to set up his own business fail when he is turned down for a business loan and his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts - Ned Kelly) has finally had enough and divorced him. With America at war in Vietnam and President Richard Nixon telling his lies on TV Bicke loses it and when he hears on the news about an upset pilot landing a helicopter on the lawn of the Whitehouse he hatches a plan to hijack a plane and have it flown into the building.

Sean Penn and Naomi Watts in The Assassination of Richard Nixon

So as already mentioned "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is partly based around the true story of Samuel Joseph Byck who on February 22, 1974 tried to hijack a plane with the plan to have it flown into the Whitehouse to kill Richard Nixon. And various elements of Byck's story end up in the movie such as him sending tapes to people including Leonard Bernstein; he did try to join the Black Panthers and was depressed following his divorce. Even what lead Byck to think about flying a plane into the Whitehouse, the story of a helicopter landing on the Whitehouse lawn is used in the movie.

But what we have in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is a look at what drove the character of Samuel J. Bicke to basically have a breakdown and deciding to try and kill the President. And so we watch as he finds working as a salesman a less than satisfactory job because he is expected to lie, he dislikes the way that the Black people and his friend Bonny are treated. We see how an attempt to get a business loan makes him disillusioned and finally the strained relationship with his wife who divorces him pushes him over the top. All of which is solid because it works well together to create this image of a man who basically can't get a break and the more things go wrong the more he becomes disillusioned. It is a very dour look; there is no humour just a very dry look at this man who in many ways feels like life keeps on kicking him in the nuts.

But here is the thing the actual character of Samuel J. Bicke is such a loser than it is difficult to like or even feel for him. In fact he brings a lot of his issues on himself but never blames himself always looking for someone else to take responsibility for his failings. And it is because of this and the very dry story that no matter how well put together it is, how things link together you always feel like an observer and at times an unwilling one.

Ironically despite playing a character which is hard to like Sean Penn's performance is brilliant and at times shocking powerful. The way he plays Bicke as a bit of a sap, walked all over by his bosses is so real and really establishes him as being weak. Yet then as things become too much we watch as Bicke erupts and the way Penn forces words out in a tirade of emotion almost struggling to get them to leave his mouth is something truly magnificent. Even if you find "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" a struggle to watch because of its dour story the performance of Penn make it worthwhile.

What this all boils down to is that "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is an interesting movie but also one that is at times a bit of a strain to watch because it simply is very dour. But it has something very special and that is Sean Penn delivering a performance which again stakes his claim to being De Niro's successor as a great actor.