We’re just about at the point where everybody wants to kill Sean Penn, aren’t we? Every once in a while, actors climb to an apex of ego, ripening at a cultural saturation point where they just can no longer be tolerated. They become so engorged with praise and attention and visions of their own omnipotence that they begin to indulge every whim of the grandiose self-image that drives most people to become actors in the first place. From Fonda to Madonna, from Robbins to Gere, they become convinced their fame is an achievement or an inevitability, rather than a spectacular Pick-Six lotto win, and so everything they do must naturally be important and artistic and riveting. And whether it’s a self-serving Oscar speech, a deliciously dopey political statement or simply an egomaniacal performance, the time comes when they simply must go away.
Sean’s time was ’round about the release of I Am Sam, but The Assassination of Richard Nixon is another push down that steep slope to the valley of ass. He has lots of help from writer-director Niels Mueller, who didn’t realize an iconic actor who’s been in the insulation of a fame cocoon since Spicoli would be a terrible choice to play Samuel Bicke, an Everyman whose average frustrations boil over into a pathetic plot to crash an airplane into the White House in 1974. It doesn’t help that Mueller clearly wants to cover Sean with kisses and remove his blouse with stern but gentle hands; the star is photographed in loving close-ups and tracking shots that don’t end until Sean is darn good and ready to stop emoting.
Penn and Mueller seem to see serious mental illness and various sociopathic disorders as logical outgrowths of the pressures of modern society. They seem to wonder why there aren’t more beaten-down little men making improbable stands against the cold, monolithic world. Trouble is, little about Bicke has the ring of humanity that would even invite discussions of such nonsense. This Baltimore furniture salesman with a persecution complex is a mosaic caricature, a superstar’s idea of a common man built from shards of similar characters in better movies, broad generalizations about middle-class life and a host of thespianic tics and rambling monologues. When Bicke fights with his boss (Jack Thompson) or makes a jerk of himself around his estranged wife (Naomi Watts) and daughters, he seems not wronged, but just wrong: A dumb guy making bad choices, rather than a noble man whose choices were all made for him.
All of these conceptual problems aside, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is not without its charms when considered as a thriller with a few comic moments. Bicke empathizes the plight of blacks and American Indians in the 1970s, even making a donation to the local chapter of the Black Panthers in a funny exchange with Mykelti Williamson. The final scenes are fairly riveting, with Bicke drifting in and out of lucidity as Beethoven plays in the background of his mind at the airport. Don Cheadle hangs in well as Bicke’s mechanic friend, and Watts effectively glams down yet again. But this is Penn’s session on the driving range, and the other actors are the tee.
The real-life man who actually attempted this hijacking was named Sam Byck, but the script changes the spelling to Bicke. Mueller absolutely insists this switch has nothing to do with Travis Bickle, whose societal alienation was described in much more charismatic, convincing detail in Taxi Driver. Penn wants Bicke’s motivations to be inscrutable and highly debatable, the product of a lifetime of mixed messages and shattered dreams. Unfortunately, too much about Bicke seems rather simple: He wants to kill the President because that’s why he was written.
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON ** Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle Rated R