The Assassination of Richard Nixon has been a film that I have been trying to catch up to after the brilliant turns by Sean Penn in Mystic River and 21 Grams. This film was the one that completed the trifecta of critically acclaimed performances. While from what I remember of the trailer and the buzz made me think he was a guy who knew what he was doing and figuring out a way to commit the act of the title, this is not the case at all. Penn plays Sam Bicke as a man of high hopes and optimism if not a touch of too much naïveté. He has a smile on his face through all the hardships of his failed marriage, sub par professional life, irreconcilable differences with his brother, and a best friend who tries to help but knows that Sam will never change. Bicke is a man on the road for a terrible downward spin and the film shows us how a kind man can turn into a monster once the pressure becomes too much.
The film itself is very well put together. Director Niels Mueller has a nice flare for the visual and a good handling of pacing and exposition. He never shows us too much of Bicke’s rough life to make us think, “ok, we know he has it bad, let’s move on,” or too little so that we can’t comprehend the change that is made inside his head. We open onto his completion of the tapes being made to tell why he is doing what he is doing and the rigid stance he has at showing how one man cannot be pushed around, but instead can destroy the world. This is a nice technique to show us what the crazed man is before showing us the evolution to that point. After watching the opening scene, you will be totally caught off guard by meeting the real Sam Bicke, trying to pick up the pieces of his broken life.
Sean Penn literally embodies this man completely without a shred of himself coming through. Bicke is a shy and simple man with an infectious smile and a propensity to allow others to push him around while thinking that small parts of his life are too important to be taken lightly, (an example being his moustache as a simple of his love to the wife that no longer wants him). The film is very much dialogue driven and Penn is onscreen for every single frame. This is his movie and he takes the pressure and responsibility without looking back. No matter how good this performance is though, the supporting cast also does a stellar job. Naomi Watts is almost unrecognizable with dark hair and an attitude of both resentment and sorrow towards her ex-husband, Don Cheadle is great as always as the best friend who is trying to give Bicke the big picture on how one has to let things go in order to survive in this world, and Michael Wincott steals his brief scene as the brother who’s love has finally run out, being replaced by pity and realism.
All those involved in this picture should be credited for letting the story be told through words and emotions. Sure the final scene aboard the hijacked plane, which is the crux of the tale, is both riveting and heartbreaking; the rest of the movie is allowed to build up slowly and intelligently to that point. Penn shows once again why he is among Hollywood’s best in talent and choosing the right films to both showcase the skill and entertain the audience.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon 8/10 | ★ ★ ★