`Assassination' misses mark


February 18, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The way director Niels Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy conceive of Sam Bicke (in real life, Byck), the pathetic failed salesman at the center of the fact-based The Assassination of Richard Nixon, he's part Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver, part Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. The choice of their star, Sean Penn, to amplify his pathos turns it into a super-downer.

Penn brings the wrong kind of humanity and intensity to the role - it's as if Bicke is an Everyman awakened to social consciousness, not a fringe-dweller whose warped reality occasionally takes in the truth. Separated from his wife and kids, selling office furniture for a relentlessly upbeat boss (Jack Thompson) who steeps him in self-help like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, Bicke hopes to start a small business of his own with his car-serviceman best friend, Bonny (Don Cheadle). He cooks up the idea of a mobile tire store in a refitted school bus - unlike his conventionally successful brother, who's on the outs with Bicke and operates a thriving tire shop out of a traditional store.

Bicke is the sort of striver who blames every roadblock on someone else's dishonesty and every personal failure on his own surfeit of virtue. Penn is excellent at conveying doubt-riddled intensity, and he creates eloquent details, like the way this man who longs to woo back his wife, Marie, (Naomi Watts) worries over his wedding ring. But neither the filmmakers nor Penn can turn the story of a loser with a big idea - hijacking a plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and ramming it into Nixon's White House - into an American tragedy. It's really just the death rattle of a simple man.

Bicke (or Byck) wasn't alone in seeing Nixon as the embodiment of everything wrong with America's huckster culture. Bicke's social incompetence and faulty mental wiring are what led him to plot Nixon's killing. According to the History Channel's excellent The Plot to Kill Nixon, Bicke/Byck actually had a bawdy sense of humor. But in this fiction film, he's woebegone from beginning to end. When he makes a donation to the Black Panthers and advises them that they'd get more white sympathizers if they changed their name to Zebras, he crinkles nervously. He doesn't enjoy his own joke enough; he makes you wonder whether he even knows that it is a joke.

Watts, a superb actress, brings masterly hands-off vibes and weariness to the role of his estranged spouse, and Thompson thoroughly revives the beefy, beaming caricature of the self-satisfied Main Street go-getter.

But you look forward to the time Bicke spends with Bonny, because Bonny offers a blissful oasis of sanity and composure. He resists Bicke's assumption that as a black man he should feel at one with all oppressed people, and he tries to get Bicke to see that even highly moral men can weather petty compromises. Of course, Bicke's view of morality is totally self-serving anyway; in his misguided effort to jump-start his business he lands Bonny in jail for accepting stolen goods. You wonder why Bonny puts up with him. Even at a cozy family meal, Bicke terrorizes Bonny's son by asking him how he'd feel if his mother asked Bonny to leave.

Usually, it's a sign of richness when a movie raises more questions than it answers, but not here. What does it mean that Bicke's brother is an Orthodox Jew? There's no sign of religion in Bicke's life except for his erratic obsession with ethics. And how did such a barren soul get fixated on the conducting of Leonard Bernstein? Was he a fan of CBS' Young People's Concerts? The movie's austerity is painful, its hollowness befuddling. It gives us the isolation and loneliness of a Taxi Driver without the boiling sensuality.

Bicke leaves a trail of dead and wounded bodies in his wake, but the movie is numbing. In trying to position Bicke as a failed American dreamer, the movie actually diminishes his character.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon makes Bicke suffer the greatest indignity: it turns him into a relentless bore.

Assassination of Richard Nixon

Starring Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts

Directed by Niels Mueller

Released by ThinkFilm

Rated R

Time 95 minutes


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