The Assassination of Richard Nixon, 95 mins.

What is a man to do when the American Dream turns into a nightmare? That’s the question that faces Sean Penn’s character, Sam Bicke, in the provocatively-titled The Assassination of Richard Nixon.  As the film opens, Bicke is at Baltimore Washington International Airport with a gun strapped to a caliper on his leg, preparing to board a plane.

The film makers describe the film as “inspired by a true story”. We know, of course, that Richard Nixon was not assassinated. But there really was a Sam Bicke (actually spelled “Byck”) who, on 22 February, 1974, tried to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House. While the film seems to stick factually close to the truth, writer/director Niels Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy still have plenty of room for fiction – especially when dealing with what goes on in the mind of a would-be assassin.

According to The New York Times, the real Byck christened his assassination plot “Operation Pandora’s Box”, which indicates that he thought of it as the start of something big. Of course – as we know from the fact that we haven’t heard of Byck – it wasn’t. But the plan to fly a plane into the White House has greater significance since 9/11.

In the film, Bicke sees himself as an honest and fair man who is being penalised for his righteousness. But the audience sees him as a struggler fighting a losing battle. He’s divorced, but desperate for reconciliation with his wife (Naomi Watts in a dark wig and an understated, effective performance) and a return to the bosom of his family. He’s estranged from his successful brother, and he’s inept as a furniture salesman. His boss (Aussie actor Jack Thompson, stealing every scene he is in – even from Sean Penn!) is a gruff and blustery master salesman who tries to teach Bicke “The Power of Positive Thinking” and other sales techniques. But Bicke isn’t convinced. He is expected to lie to his customers to make sales, and he resents it, lamenting the fact that in business, the biggest liar gets the promotion.

Bicke’s faltering American dream depends on hare-brained schemes. He dreams of running his own tyre retailing business out of a broken-down school bus. He applies for a grant from the Small Business Administration. The scene in which he acts out for a bureaucrat his philosophy of total honesty in business, and unknowingly reveals just how terrible a businessman he would be, is excruciating. And there’s another scene in which he proposes to the Black Panther Party a way to double their support base. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so pathetic.

Bicke comes to blame his problems on Richard Nixon, whose Watergate travails are on TV all the time. We know that Tricky Dickie was a lawyer, but Bicke’s boss has proclaimed Nixon the greatest salesman ever: “He made a promise [to end the Vietnam War], he didn’t deliver, and then he sold us on the exact same promise all over again!” So Sam Bicke becomes Travis Bickle and hatches his assassination plot. At some point he has moved from righteousness to madness, destroying not Nixon, but himself, and taking innocent lives with him, just as today’s suicide bombers do.

I find Penn a mannered performer – in this film he seems to be channeling Dustin Hoffman – but there is no denying the emotional power he wields as his character careers  toward a mental breakdown. Asking an audience to witness a man’s gradual deterioration over 95 minutes is a big ask, but the film brings it off. Recent films such as Bowling for Columbine (Moore, 2002) and Elephant (Van Sant, 2003) have explored the phenomenon of people who, feeling marginalised by society, are driven to kill. And of course Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976) was the definitive fictional film on this subject. But The Assassination of Richard Nixon, with Sean Penn leading a terrific supporting cast, brings a contemporary resonance to a little-known footnote of history.