Sean Penn has made an Oscar-winning career out of playing flawed characters. From a death-row inmate in Dead Man Walking to an egotistical guitar-player in Sweet and Lowdown to a grieving father in Mystic River, his portrayals are continually fascinating.
He adds another such character to his resume in Niels Mueller's debut film, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
It is impossible to say that Nixon is an entertaining film; most people won't leave the theater with a bounce in their step. It is, however, ironic and disquieting, both for the parallels to today's world and for Penn's portrait of one man's disintegration into madness.
Penn plays Samuel Bicke, who was a real man. According to Mueller's screenplay, Bicke was trying to assassinate President Nixon in 1974 by hijacking an airplane and crashing it into the White House.
But he didn't just wake up one day and say, "I think I'll kill the president." The motivation for his action is the heart of the story written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy.
Like Arthur Miller's Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, Bicke is a little man, maybe not physically (but most of the men in the movie are more imposing than Penn) but in importance. He is seeking the American Dream, but it eludes him, and it never occurs to Bicke that he is as much at fault as the outside forces against which he rails.
His best (and only) friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), has a better handle on what it takes to achieve success and what it means to be successful, even though he is a black man in a racist society.
Bicke believes he is one of the few principled men left in America, and this belief has cost him more than one job, including working for his brother at a tire store. It's a lie, Bicke tells a loan officer, to say that a 10 percent discount is your rock-bottom price, when you know, as a salesman, that you can offer a 15 percent discount. Bicke refuses to lie.
However, Bicke also refuses to see that he's lying to himself about his marriage. He is separated from Marie (a marvelous Naomi Watts), and is in agony over her work as a cocktail waitress. She doesn't need to work, he believes; he can take care of her and their three kids if only she will let him come back home.
It's obvious that Marie long ago gave up any hope that Bicke would change, that their marriage would work. She's only marking time until their divorce.
Bicke is also lying to himself about his future. He hates his boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), who believes Richard Nixon is the greatest salesman in the world. "He made a promise. He didn't deliver. Then he sold us on the exact same promise again. That's believing in himself," Jones says.
Bicke longs for the day he can start his own business with Bonny. But to get a loan from the Small Business Administration, Bicke must jump through bureaucratic hoops that are at odds with his ideals. He is the only one who doesn't see that the loan application is doomed from the start.
As Bicke's personal world slowly erodes, Nixon's smugness swirls out from the televised newcasts and presidential addresses. The day Bicke botches a big furniture sale when he tells a client that the store owner is lying, he hears Nixon say, "Your president is not a crook."
Penn makes it impossible not to empathize with Bicke, even though his character is the kind of person you just don't want to be around. When Bicke shows up unexpectedly to see his family and is rebuffed by Marie, he walks around the yard, touching the dog, the tree, the fence, trying to find some comfort, some sense of belonging.
The day he gets the divorce decree, it comes as such a shock, he is almost prostrate with grief, but he is the only one who didn't know it was coming.
Through it all, Nixon is taunting him from the television, and Bicke finally finds a target for his rage, his grief, his impotence.
After making his decision to kill Nixon, we hear Bicke's thoughts explaining that, although he is only one man, he is determined to make a difference in the world, to leave a legacy. But because he is as much a failure in achieving this goal as he is in the rest of his life, Bicke is doomed to become no more than a footnote in history.
If he is any more, it's only thanks to the powerful performance of Penn and writing of Mueller. Both will very likely stand the test of time.
Contact Nanciann Cherry at: firstname.lastname@example.org