When the American dream collides with harsh reality in The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, the aftermath is both humbling and poignant. The film opens with the American President proselytising on television screens to the nation.
These grainy TV images quickly establish the theme of isolation from and frustration with a greater cause that the main character struggles with throughout the film.
Assassination is based on the true story of a furniture salesman Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) who attempted to assassinate Nixon in 1974.
Bicke is the quintessential man down on his luck: he struggles to earn a living at a job that he hates and his attempts to reunite with his distant wife (Naomi Watts) and kids are rejected.
Penn’s performance makes this film. The slow plot and anti-climactic ending are helped by Penn’s portrayal. In this role, Penn establishes himself as a master at playing blemished, downtrodden and cheated characters (Dead Man Walking, Mystic River) whom you can’t help but feel aching sympathy for. Bicke is such an irritatingly moral person that he finds his new job as a salesman difficult because he can’t in good conscience lie to make a buck and subsequently climb the company ladder.
Don Cheadle is Bicke’s only friend, Bonny, a car mechanic and the voice of the “everyman”, repeatedly saying that there is no shame in lying to get by in society. When Bicke shaves off his moustache to look more like a respectable family man to customers, he becomes filled with shame for giving in to his money-hungry boss and anger about what the working class person must do to survive in the workforce. His frustration escalates as he tries to start his own business and gets caught in the red tape.
Throughout the first half of The Assassination of Richard Nixon (get it here), Bicke is a jovial pushover. When Bicke’s good nature snaps, his misery and anger are so palpable that you squirm in discomfort. This character echoes Travis Bickle, the Vietnam War veteran played by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, not only in name but also in the fierce determination to wipe out the root of society’s cancer.
For Bickle, this cancer is prostitution and for Bicke it’s the greed and corruption feeding the false ideal of the American dream. As he sits alone watching images of the war in Vietnam interspersed with car commercials and Nixon press conferences, Bicke finds his answer to remedy all that is wrong with society, with chilling results.