What happens when dreams can't be realized?
By BETSY PICKLE
The American dream goes awry in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."
Success eludes the protagonist like a cat escaping the clutches of a toddler. The man whose story unfolds here is a failure, complete with a giant "L" for "loser" seared to his forehead, visible to everyone but himself. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness don't stand a chance in the face of this kind of alienation.
Based on an obscure true story, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is about a man named Samuel Byck (here spelled "Bicke") who channeled his frustration, disappointment and anger into a 1974 plot to kill the 37th president of the United States. That Byck did not succeed is a no-brainer; Nixon lived long enough to resign from office amidst the Watergate scandal and then reinvent himself as an elder statesman before dying at 81 in 1994.
The story is translated to the screen by director and co-writer Niels Mueller, who uses Bicke as a symbol of self-delusion. This man is a square peg in a round hole, doomed to a life of not fitting in and blaming everyone but himself for his predicament.
Like many who become disenfranchised and lash out in anger, Bicke involves others in his circle of tragedy. Because of this, the character isn't readily sympathetic, but Sean Penn's portrayal of the loss of hope as a visceral, claustrophobic sensation keeps Bicke from becoming a monster.
All Sam Bicke wants is to win his family back. He thinks his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), dumped him because he couldn't keep a job, so he's determined to succeed as an office-supply salesman. It's clear to anyone, especially his boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), that Sam is no salesman.
Sam's dream is to run a mobile tire store with his best friend, Bonny (Don Cheadle), an auto mechanic. He eagerly applies for a small-business loan, but it's obvious that in this area, too, Sam's expectations deviate from reality. Crushed time and time again, Sam concocts a plan to make his mark on history.
Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy work unexpected flashes of humor into the bleak story. Some of the comedy is at Sam's expense; some of it highlights the irony of American life and history.
The script is low-key and full of perception, and the performances make the most of its potential. Penn obviously is the focal point, and his work is flawless. As Sam, he decries deceit and praises greatness, but he's even less than Salieri to Mozart because he's so painfully unaware of his place in the universe.
Watts, Thompson, Cheadle and Michael Wincott as Sam's brother, Julius, all contribute heartbreakingly true moments.
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" acknowledges the fact that in a society run by contract, not everyone is going to agree to sign on. Its power lies in its ability to see how much -- and how little -- difference this can make.