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:: The Assassination of Richard Nixon

In an unnerving drama exposing the realities of the American dream, director and co-writer Niels Mueller portrays the dim life of Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) an ‘average Joe’ and his copious attempts at success which ultimately contribute to his downfall and eventual destruction.

Although inspired by a true story about an assassination attempt that was barely reported at the time, the movie focuses on the timid, awkward character of Bicke and his troubled life.

“The Assassination Of Richard Nixon” was written almost six years prior to its release yet many aspects mirror contemporary society. The audience witnesses several stages where this central character goes up against a higher power and fails forcing him to see any sort of authoritative relationship as being between “us” and “them”. The movie begins and ends with Bicke’s thwarted attempt to kill President Nixon, as this becomes the only way to defeat “them” and regain some sort of empowerment.

Sam has a wife, Marie (Naomi Watts) and three children and although Marie is kind to him to begin with it is not long before she gives up on him and makes every effort to keep him out of her life. He has just landed a new job as a furniture salesman after leaving his brother’s business claiming he cannot be in a workplace committed to lies. But it is not long before he realises his new boss Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), has been inspired by the same message. Jones tells Bicke to learn from President Nixon, a man who gained the most power in America by living a lie. His campaign relied on ending the war and twice he won on this promise. Twice he lied.

Through a series of letdowns Bicke becomes increasingly helpless and after seeing a news report of an attempt at diving a plane into the White House, he believes his chance has come and regardless of all other failures this time he will be noticed. Although an ordinary man he is going to take extraordinary measures ensuring that no one will forget.

Sean Penn is outstanding in this film. His character is a complete contrast from his Oscar-winning performance in Mystic River yet he is just as deserving of an award here for his remarkable expressions and depiction of a perennial loser.

Throughout the film, Bicke speaks into a tape recorder about making his presence felt, almost as if he is leaving justification for his actions which in the end never had a real chance of fruition anyway. Essentially, the recordings become a part of his own mind game where he speaks confidently even though really he has no belief in himself.

Earlier on, Bicke applies for a loan as he wants to start his own mobile tire service and as much as he forces his application through, he must suffer through the process and wait in line just like everyone else. In the meantime his wife Marie files a decree for divorce and we see Penn at the peak of his performance as Bicke’s entire life comes crumbling down. Add to this a rejection to his application and the decision to force himself to be seen as worthy of living the American dream is decided.

Much of the framing feels emotionally claustrophobic and at the climax of Bicke’s helplessness, hand-held sequences give viewers the impression they are reluctant and unsuspecting voyeurs.

The irony of this movie is its reality. It was initially written as a fictitious script but after further research Mueller discovered its similarities to an historical footnote. There was an attempt to assassinate the 37th President but it was overshadowed by newscasts reporting the Watergate scandal. Mueller realised the parallels were remarkable and after just a few changes the two stories were merged ensuring a deep resounding message - that even Bicke’s ultimate goal: to leave a mark on the world, was overlooked.

The relationship American people have with their President is mimicked in this film. A television relationship where all the answers are supposed to be told through the screen and brought into the comforts of living rooms nation-wide. Real news clippings were inserted into the film and overlooked by the characters, same as the life lead by Sam Bicke who only ever wanted to be noticed and given a chance but became alienated and invisible.

It is a chilling drama with a strong message and a surprise debut for Mueller. If nothing else it should be viewed for its impressive character driven dialogue and remarkable acting.