The Assassination of Richard Nixon is like a Rodney Dangerfield routine played straight, an orgy of masochism about a man who gets no respect. The plot derives from the true story of Samuel Byck, a mentally disturbed Philadelphia man who blamed President Nixon for his personal troubles and, on Feb. 22, 1974, attempted to hijack a plane leaving Baltimore-Washington International Airport and crash it into the White House. (He failed.) The filmmakers, writer/director Niels Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy, have adapted Byck’s story freely, leaving out some of the more colorful incidents and inventing a number of others (also changing the spelling of his name to Bicke, in an apparent, ill-considered attempt to evoke Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle; Scorsese’s film got right exactly what theirs gets wrong). In Mueller and Kennedy’s version, Sam (Sean Penn) is a ferrety little man who works as an office furniture salesman, having been forced out of his brother’s tire dealership because, as he tells it, he insisted on being honest. He’s separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts), who just wants to be rid of him and barely allows him to visit their three children. His new boss, Jack Jones (the gifted Australian actor Jack Thompson) is the film’s symbol of the decadence of American money and power, an oleaginous swindler who disapproves of Sam doing anything less than screwing customers out of the maximum sum. The one person who cares about Sam is his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle), a mechanic who humors his pipe dream that they’ll open a mobile tire store operating out of an old school bus. Sam takes his plans (complete with crude crayon drawings of a big red bus) to the Small Business Administration to apply for a start-up loan. When he doesn’t hear back quickly, he begins to stew and to look for someone to blame.
The film is done in the disillusioned, the-whole-world-is-rotten manner of Vietnam-era psychodramas, and it does a credible job of recreating their texture, right down to the tedious self-indulgence. Mueller and Kennedy seem to have intended to tell the story of a small man who’s ignored and cast aside until he finally reaches his breaking point. But what we see isn’t a progression into madness; it’s a mostly static portrait of persistent madness that no one around him notices. Penn doesn’t vary much—he’s overwrought from the get-go—and the filmmakers don’t help him, keeping the tone too similar throughout the first hour rather than building toward a climax.
Penn’s performance is tentative, squirmy; his Sam is a man who seems to be apologizing even when he isn’t. His voice sounds strained, his words choked out more than spoken; at times he seems to lapse into a previous role, the developmentally challenged hero of I am Sam. His features, drawn into a grimace, are never in repose; they jerk and tick constantly, as if he’s doing facial calisthenics. Much of the film is shot in close-up, giving us every little spasm, and when we’re not looking right at Sam, we’re seeing from his point of view and overhearing his thoughts in voice-over, so that we feel trapped in his head. It’s not a pleasant place to be, as there isn’t a single scene in which we see Sam happy or relaxed. Mueller and Kennedy take their subject so seriously that they refuse to let a little air in, to balance Sam’s torment with a glimpse of happier days. If there were a flashback to before his marriage broke up or even a moment, say with Bonny, that was at all light-hearted, we’d care a lot more about Sam. The way they present him, though, you can’t imagine Sam ever experiencing joy, or even functioning normally, so you can’t understand why Marie would ever have married him or borne him three children, or how he ever got a job in sales, or how, having gotten that job, he convinced anyone to buy anything.
Penn’s performance is effective in the early scenes, but the unrelieved litany of rejections and humiliations make both him and the film irritatingly monotonous, eroding our identification with the character. Without a rooting interest in Sam, there’s no one else onscreen for us to care about. The only character who’s likable is Bonny, who mostly seems ill-at-ease and mildly concerned about Sam. Cheadle is an enormously likable and gifted actor, but he’s given nothing to work with; the only minor characters who have anything to do are the ones who make Sam miserable. And even they get short shrift—we want to know more about Marie, like how she got so fed-up, and what things were like before, but we don’t get to find out. Naomi Watts does what she can with her few scenes, but they’re all written n the same key. As Sam’s smarmy boss, Jack Thompson fares better: Playing a character who’s written as flat, he manages to show that even sleaze can have a surprising number of facets. Jack Jones is so creepy and condescending that even his compliments leave you feeling dirty.
The film’s single-mindedness leaves other victims, most notably logic. Sam’s brother Julius (Michael Wincott) is costumed an Orthodox Jew, but Sam doesn’t show signs of having been raised in any particular faith; his only values appear to consist of the childlike formulations that lying is wrong and that powerful people shouldn’t oppress the powerless. Did Julius convert? And are we to make anything of the implication that Julius is a money-grubbing Jew? Is it possible to ignore it?
And Sam tape-records rambling vindications of his assassination plan (that’s where the voice-overs come from) that are addressed to the composer Leonard Bernstein, but there’s hardly any explanation of why he selected Bernstein; we never even see him listening to music, so it just seems random. (This may be a detail that Mueller and Kennedy took from life and forgot to dramatize. In reality, Byck wrote to Bernstein and several other prominent figures.)
The film also has an ill-informed view of mental illness; it seems to suggest that Sam’s dementia grew out of his innate, simple-minded goodness and that everything would have been fine if only someone had listened to him. By the end, you don’t blame them for ignoring Sam; you’re ready to do the same.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()