Sean Penn……….Samuel Bicke
Naomi Watts……….Marie Bicke
Don Cheadle……….Bonny Simmons
Jack Thompson……….Jack Jones
Mykelti Williamson……….Harold Mann
Michael Wincott……….Julius Bicke
Thinkfilm presents The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated R (for language and a scene of graphic violence).
The setting is Baltimore, circa 1974. Sam Bicke tries to justify himself, explain himself. With the help of a reel-to-reel recorder Bicke ruminates his shortcomings. His audience is legendary composer Leonard Bernstein. Sam is an ardent fan of Bernstein’s musical compositions The two have never met, never communicated with one another; but Bicke believes a connection exists between them.
There is an internal struggle going on with Bicke. The bank turned him down for a small business loan. He is a lackluster office supply salesman. He is separated from his wife. Could each situation have an inherent effect on the others? Possibly. Sam can be best described as a socially inept man who has become disillusioned with society. A man with an intense hatred against the injustices of the world.
Everybody is connected. Maybe not by blood or through relationships, but everyone is connected. In his first recording – and a recording that sets the tone for the entire film – Bicke tells Bernstein that he considers himself “a grain of sand.” Never thought about it like that, but it’s true. All of us are grains of sand on this beach called Earth. Chuck Palahniuk (author of Fight Club and Choke) once wrote “on a long enough timeline the survival rate of everything drops to zero.” For Sam, in 1974, his lifespan comes to an end over a two-month span. Using a voice recorder Bicke is able to vent his suspended rage about himself as well as the evils of the world – small businesses, the persecution against the Black Panthers, and Richard “Dick” Nixon.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is more about Sam Bicke and less about his plan to assassinate the president. Every problem is someone else’s fault, never his own. When Sam hits rock bottom, his frustrations consume him to the point where he realizes he has nothing else to lose.
The idea that spurs Bicke’s decision to kill Nixon stems from a conversation he had with his boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson). Looking like he was pulled out of an off Broadway production of Glengarry Glen Ross, Jack tells Sam that Nixon won the election because he promised to get the troops out of Vietnam. “He didn’t deliver. Then he sold us on the exact same promise and he got elected again.” But Bicke isn’t an advocate of lying. Essentially, he is a honest man in an unjust world.
Despite his attempts of reconciliation with wife Marie (Naomi Watts), Sam is served with divorce papers. Sam loves his wife and his three children and the family dog. But there is a coldness between Sam and Marie that isn’t quite explained. The children love their daddy, but it is pretty apparent that they know he will not always be there. Even man’s best friend is apathetic to his master’s approval.
Sam’s dreams of starting a mobile tire service with his close friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), are dashed when the Small Business Association declines his loan application. Sam has this sense of urgency. He believes this is his last attempt of making something of himself. So for eight weeks Sam does not leave his apartment. Even when confined to his apartment he is on the outside looking in. Turned away by his family and the bank; a joke to his boss and co-workers. His only solace is the music of Leonard Bernstein and a pack of cigarettes.
Sean Penn shows why he is such an amazing talent. A chameleon-like actor, Penn gets under the skin of the characters he plays. Whether it be a dead man walking or his Academy Award-winning performance as a man who suffers the loss of a child, he makes the insignificant characters significant. He likes to challenge himself with the roles he picks. Any other year Penn would have been nominated for Best Actor. You can definitely tell it was a tough year for acting nominations, though, when even Paul Giamatti can’t score one.
First-time director Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon is tough to judge. The film is a character study with no clear message. The voyage of a man who has fallen off the rails of sanity. Not since Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – a film that defined the 1970s – has a film shared such a connection.
VIDEO: How does it look?
For some reason I was expecting a different look for the film. I made the mistake of thinking that the director wanted to achieve that grainy look of the films of the 70’s. Instead, we get a film that has nice lighting aspects and coloring. I also didn’t notice any object detail. This is surprising since it was shot with a shoestring budget. The film has its theatrical widescreen presentation (1.85:1) and it is enhanced for 16 x 9 televisions.
AUDIO: How does it sound?
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a dialogue-driven film, with a few flying bullets thrown in for good measure. The DVD comes with two audio options: English 5.1 and Stereo Surround. Since the film is heavy on the dialogue, the audio track doesn’t take advantage of natural sound. Still you’ll get enough audio clarity with the 5.1 option. Also, you can view the film with English or Spanish subtitles.
SPECIAL FEATURES: What happened to the commentary?
In the press release for the film’s arrival on home video it included a list of the special features. One of the features was a commentary from writer-director Niels Mueller. But wait, there was an asterisk by the special features implying that the features were subject to change.
Sadly, the commentary did not make it as a special feature. A commentary by Niels Mueller, the first-time director, would have made a nice supplement. I’ll guess I have to use my imagination and wonder about the commentary that could have been. I’m sure Mueller would have discussed Sean Penn’s performance and the casting of Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle.
The only extras the guys at New Line Cinema have given us are trailers for the Sundance Film Festival favorite Primer and the Academy Award-nominated Vera Drake.