The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) / Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language and violence
Running Time: 95 min.

Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad Henke, Michael Wincott, Mykelti Williamson
Director: Niels Mueller
Screenplay: Kevin Kennedy, Niels Mueller
Review published January 9, 2005

Sean Penn's (I Am Sam, Sweet and Lowdown) excellent performance provides the energy to make this character study into a worthwhile film, even though the storytelling flaws do eventually keep the film from delivering on the same level.  Inspired by true events, The Assassination of Richard Nixon begins with a man seemingly on his way to off the president for what he feels are misdeeds caused to him, and the nation of people like him.  Mueller then backs up a year to relate how mild-mannered office supply salesman, Sam Bicke, would get to this point.  With a marriage on the brink of dissolution, a fledgling career that requires him to go against his personal ethics, and a dream for his own personal success not realized, Bicke's once stable world would fall apart, with every attempt to keep it all together only making matters worse.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon marks the debut of director Niels Mueller, who had been working on an assassination project for several years, soon discovering the true-life tale of Sam Byck, which he combined with his script to form this intriguing hypothetical drama about a man who would try to change the world, only no one knew about it.  Mueller bolsters the film with the defeatist sentiment expressed in tapes Byck actually sent to composer Leonard Bernstein, which gives fuel to the fire that would eventually consume him to go off the deep end. 

While Mueller does a fine job in drawing out good characterizations and mounting them into a vehicle with potential, as the film draws closer to its conclusion, it is apparent something is still missing.  The whole point of the film is to start with point B, then go back to point A and see the events that would lead up to the point we started with.  Mueller does do a fine job getting us up to speed and seeing how it began, but after we have come full circle, the film continues, and while we can understand point A to point B, arriving at point C, the film's conclusion, is not handled as well, and the thematic build-up deflates where it should have reached its apex.  In this post-9/11 environment, there is an interesting parallel to Bicke's (and Byck's) scheme to get back at the president that became the object of his obsessions, but even this angle seems to distract, as there is little time spent exploring just how this thought came to mind or his plans to carry it forth.

So in the end, we have a dynamite performance by Penn, a quality supporting cast, some solid character development, and an exciting climax that has only half a build-up.  The Assassination of Richard Nixon is lots of interesting loose ends only sporadically tied together, and at only 95 minutes, Mueller had every opportunity to provide the missing pieces to make this a more complete picture of an unassuming man gone far beyond the brink of sanity.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo