Dark and eerily resonant, Niels Mueller's "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," partly based on a true story, crawls under your skin and amps up the agitation until you want to jump out of it. A portrait of a particular kind of workaday American angst at its most perturbed, "Nixon" is something far more distressing than a horror movie — it's a worry movie.
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is a film not only about fear of failure but about bewilderment at failure, a distinctly American terror. As Sam Bicke, a depressed, divorced salesman who in 1974 attempts to hijack a plane in order to crash it into the White House, Sean Penn shrinks and cowers down to Sam's size, then lets us watch his already emaciated sense of self-worth waste away to nothing. (Penn's character was based on Samuel Byck, a name filmmakers changed to Sam Bicke for legal reasons.)
Sam's despair at having lost his family — his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) isn't interested in a reconciliation, and his kids seem as turned off by his nervous attempts at ingratiation as everyone else — is compounded by his inability to thrive at work. Spectacularly ill-equipped for a career in sales, Sam nonetheless goes from his brother's successful tire shop to an office supply company, all the while dreaming of opening his own mobile tire sales business with his partner, Bonny (Don Cheadle).
There's something about Sam's powerlessness that comes across as if it were contagious, and when, early on, he's hired by the office supply guy, the jovial, beef-fed Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), you feel as though the smiling Jack has just held the door open for a zombie. With every interaction, Sam seems to become more diminished and beseeching, until even the camera seems to gaze upon him warily, as if repelled and slightly afraid of his estrangement.
It's a deeply affecting performance, and it drives this quietly powerful, unrelenting film. Though Mueller denies a link to that other mid-'70s malcontent and wannabe assassin, Sam Bicke is nothing if not a mild-mannered, truncated Travis Bickle — albeit a far more complex, interesting and nuanced one, crossed with a schmuck. Penn's aspiring killer can't even muster the confidence to be menacing while rehearsing his crime in the privacy of his home. He never sheds his inhibitions or loses his self-consciousness, even when nobody's watching. And as cut off from reality as Sam becomes, he never snaps into the forgiving cloud-cuckoo-land of psychosis; not entirely, anyway.
He fails, in other words, even at going nuts — which has got to be the lowest, most humiliating form of failure of all.
The film starts near the end, with Sam making a voice tape for Leonard Bernstein, then the musical director of the New York Philharmonic, on which Sam explains himself in the hope of finding a sympathetic soul in the great conductor. Sam has chosen Bernstein as his confessor because he considers his music "honest" and "pure"— a fixation that almost always spells trouble, especially when it's latched onto by frustrated small-timers. Sam is so alienated, so mired in ideals and so distanced from normal, everyday life, which eludes him as though it were greatness, he's only able to see the world as a vague, broad outline. For him, it's made up of nothing but great men, evil men and downtrodden men — Bernstein, Nixon and the Black Panthers.
Having failed at both his personal and professional life, Sam's last recourse for leaving the latter category and joining the former is to take on the mantle of hero by taking out the bad guy. It's the broad-strokes American way.
Deeply mired in the Watergate scandal, Nixon becomes for Sam, as his life unravels, a symbol of the triumph of dishonesty over integrity, especially after the otter-sleek Jack admiringly describes the president as the greatest salesman in the country. "He sold us on one promise, didn't deliver, then he sold us on the exact same promise."
This is the kind of disconnect between action and intent that purportedly drives Sam crazy, though for all his obsession with truth and forthrightness (not exactly tools of his trade), you get the feeling it's his own inability to sell himself to himself that's at the root of his problem. As the Dale Carnegie-style motivational tapes Jack gives him say, "You're only as powerful as you think you are. If you don't think you have any power, you don't have any power." Tortured by the evidence of his own mediocrity, Sam proves, in the most devastating way, that there's power in negative thinking too.
'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' MPAA rating: R for language and a scene of graphic violence Times guidelines: Though limited to one scene, the violence is intense and realistic. Sean Penn...Sam Bicke Naomi Watts...Marie Don Cheadle...Bonny Jack Thompson...Jack Jones Michael Wincott...Julius Bicke Anhelo Productions presents an Anhelo Production, in association with Appian Way, released by ThinkFilm. Director Niels Mueller. Producers Jorge Vergara, Alfonso Cuarón. Executive producers Kevin Kennedy, Frida Torresblanco, Arnaud Duteil, Avram Butch Kaplan, Jason Kliot, Joana Vicente, Alexander Payne, Leonardo DiCaprio. Screenplay Niels Mueller & Kevin Kennedy. Director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki. Editor Jay Cassidy. Production design Lester Cohen. Costume design Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music Steven Stern. Running time: 95 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741; and Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times