The film is based on the story of Sam Bicke (Penn), an office furniture salesman who attempted to hijack a plane at the Baltimore airport in 1974. What led him to that decision is what concerns Mueller, who previously wrote the 2002 indie darling "Tadpole." When we first meet Bicke, he is dictating his alienated worldview onto audiotape while the mournful strains of Leonard Bernstein egg him on. Bicke, who has the slowly-simmering rage of Travis Bickle and the slightly goofy demeanor of Rupert Pupkin, is a have-not, constantly wondering why he can't have. Bicke is estranged from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and brother (Michael Wincott), the latter operating a tire dealership. His best, and according to the film, only friend is a mechanic named Bonny (Don Cheadle). With Bicke starting to teeter, he gets a job at an office furniture showroom run by blustery Jack Jones (an excellent Jack Thompson). Jones gives Bicke a series of self-help tapes including "The Power of Positive Thinking" and "How to Win Friends and Influence People." Ironically, the tapes have the opposite effect: Instead of convincing him to take charge of his life, they only give shape and power to his growing disillusionment. So when his wife files for divorce and his dreams of a mobile tire-store get shot down, Bicke is at his wits' end. His next move provides the film its title.
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is well-shot (by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) and well-acted but the narrative is just skin and bones. We're never sure what a hottie like Marie ever saw in Sam, who spends 105 minutes as a sad-sack. Cheadle is completely wasted and Watts seems to have signed on as a favor to Penn. More sidebars (humorous and otherwise) would have helped, like the scene in which Bicke goes into the local Black Panthers office and suggests they'd recruit more white people by changing their name to the Zebras. Also terrific is Jack's speech about Nixon being the ultimate salesman, having sold the country twice on the notion that he'd pull troops out of Vietnam. The only thing one takes away from the film is that Niels Mueller has the stuff to direct a better movie. But "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is a slack first effort. Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle. Directed by Niels Mueller. Written by Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy. Produced by Alfonso Cuaron and Jorge Vergara. A Thinkfilm release. Drama. Rated R for language and a scene of graphic violence. Running time: 105 min