Niels Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon puts Sean Penn through his actorly paces, which would be enough for most movies, but also intelligently explores the development of a man desperate enough to kill just to be noticed.
Penn plays Sam Bicke, a man who, as the title implies, will attempt to kill Richard Nixon before the film's end. Like the real-life Byck (name changed to protect the innocent filmmakers), Penn's screen version bungles his professional and personal lives, dictates self-explanatory tapes to Leonard Bernstein ("Tell them why I did this, Maestro"), and hatches a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House. Bicke gets support from a buddy played by Don Cheadle, and pressure from his hard-charging boss (Jack Thompson, simply marvelous), harsh brother (Michael Wincott, chilling), and estranged wife (Naomi Watts, in exasperated mode).
Mueller and writing partner Kevin Kennedy touch on a number of interesting themes. America is a nation of salesmanship, evidenced in part by the reading matter foisted on Sam by his boss: How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking. Sam's pathetic failures in pursuit of his American Dream are made all the more ironic by his moral clarity. He demands honesty (to a fault, as his boss would have it) and insists, "A man doesn't give up his rights." DP Emmanuel Lubezki—presumably borrowed from producer Alfonso Cuarón—gives the film a shadowy, unsettlingly naturalist tone, enhanced by tipsy camera operation.
Sam allows himself to be emasculated by emotional and physical intrusions. As his family turns away from him and his co-workers remain either ineffectual or downright hostile, Sam idealizes his situation as heroic (like Russell Means, he would "rather die than submit to slavery") and forms imagined relationships, with Bernstein and the omnipresent, televisual Nixon. But Mueller is only interested in Bicke's present, fractured mindset. Who this man was before, how he attracted Watts' character, and why he still enjoys loyalty from Cheadle's character are questions the film raises with every scene, but refuses to answer.
Nevertheless, Penn's immersive treatment is the real show here, his dissolution unfolding unnervingly and credibly. Faint desperation turns to pleading and flop-sweat, eventually boiling over into the untethered madness of a man with nothing left to lose. Raging into action as the President of the United States conversely begins to shrink in post-Watergate stature, Bicke reasonably concludes, "The meek shall not inherit the earth."
[For Groucho's interview with Niels Mueller, click here.]