The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Sean Penn Drives A Dead End Taxi
By Cole Smithey
Debut writer/director Neils Mueller (co-writer on "Tadpole") stitches together an ambiguous meditation on the pervasive affects of government corruption during the Nixon Administration that led a Baltimore man to attempt to kill the President. The man attempted to hijack a plane that he hoped to crash into the White House. Although loosely based on real events, through which the director shows a pre-9/11 intentionality of flying planes into government buildings, the film never expands beyond a closed circle of theatrical dramatic limitations.
Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a clear reference to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," in which social misfit Travis Bickle organized his pent-up anger and frustration at the corruption around him toward an inevitable exhibition of violence. But the reference pigeonholes "The Assassination Of Richard Nixon" as a second-rate attempt at riding on its predecessor's coattails without giving the audience anything near that film's far-reaching dramatic arc.
Bicke is an aurally-fixated social outcast caught between setting a good example, that he hopes will win back his estranged wife (Naomi Watts), or in lashing out against the person he blames for the ruination of all things sacred in America, namely Richard Nixon.
The daily-televised Watergate hearings inform Bicke's doomed idea of impressing his idol Leonard Bernstein with a desperate act he believes will somehow live up to the magnificence of Bernstein's prolific talent. Bicke tape-records an explanation of his imagined actions that he assumes Bernstein will later announce in some bizarre public forum. The scene allows for a monologue equivalent to the famous "You talkin' to me?" scene from "Taxi Driver." Sean Penn massages the scenery as a master of his craft. But the question of why Penn agreed to take on this specific role nags throughout the movie.
Bicke's faltering character evolution is a self-inflicted act of erosion that he puts himself through in order to galvanize his goal of becoming a martyr to society. At Bicke's day job, as an upstart office furniture salesman, his boss (Jack Thompson) gives him books on positive-thinking that only serve to further contaminate Bicke's low self-esteem. As Bicke goes through the motions of repeating corporate inflected mantras of self-actualization, he provides himself with more disinformation to rebel against later.
Our central character takes a headlong dive into "Taxi Driver" territory when he shaves off his mustache after offering his allegiance to a local Black Panther office. He harbors a cockeyed idea of starting up a group called the "Zebras" that would unite white and black members. What's missing from the scene is the royal ass-beating this foolhardy white guy would have surely received in 1974 if he dared to set foot in a Black Panther office in Baltimore.
The most remarkable thing about this dramatically mangled movie is Sean Penn's single-handed ability to elevate the material with a thankless performance as a borderline-retarded anti-hero. Don Cheadle and Michael Wincott craft strong supporting roles that crackle as isolated sparks with nothing to ignite.
If Neils Muller hoped to draw similarities between Richard Nixon and George Bush, then that oblique correlation is even more askew than the his bumbling attempts at codifying Scorsese's "Taxi Driver."
Rated R. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)