CANNES -- American comedian Chris Rock had a great routine about O.J. Simpson following the killing of his wife that had the punch line, "I'm not saying he should have done it, but I understand."
As we know, Richard Nixon was not assassinated, but after a couple of hours listening to unrelenting tapes of the late, unlamented U.S. president telling public lies about Watergate in 1974, when sad sack Sam Bicke decides to hijack a plane and blow up the White House, you don't think he should do it, but you understand.
It's much more difficult, however, to grasp what kind of audience will respond to this film, beyond fans of Sean Penn. He turns in as fine a performance as you would expect, but the movie, based on a real incident in Baltimore, is missing key information and treads a thoroughly downbeat path to its bloody conclusion.
Bicke (Penn) is an earnest but care-worn man unhappily separated from his attractive wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), and their two children. He works as a salesman in an office furniture store, a job he is ill-suited for as he lacks such seeming essentials as drive, smarts and a winning personality. His blowhard boss Jack Jones (Jack Thompson) believes in a traditional form of salesmanship that relies heavily on the tenets of Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." There's a funny scene in which Jones claims that "belief" is the key to successful selling and points to Nixon as being the greatest salesman as he sold himself to the American public in two presidential elections on the promise of ending the war in Vietnam.
Sam, who pines for success in order to win back his wife and has plans for a mobile tire shop in partnership with a hardworking but struggling mechanic named Bonny (Don Cheadle), is counting on a Nixon promise too. He's applied for financial assistance through a small-business aid plan that Nixon hopes will provide a distraction from his desperate political woes.
But Sam is the kind of doofus who thinks a trimmed mustache makes him look sharp and who loiters at the bar of the restaurant where his estranged wife works, whining about her skimpy skirts and the blithe way she suffers the groping of customers. He stares at the world and sees wealth all around him and can't understand why none of it comes his way.
Penn is expert at getting under the skin of characters like this, and it's not his fault that we never learn who he might have been before becoming such an apparent loser. His wife is attractive and resourceful and soon finds a polite and well-dressed man who drives a Cadillac Eldorado. What did she see in Sam? His only friend is an industrious black man who is willing to enter into a business partnership with him when Sam clearly lacks entrepreneurial skills. How did they become pals?
First-time director Niels Mueller and his co-screenwriter Kevin Kennedy depict Sam's disintegration expertly, and they have fashioned a well-made picture with much to like. The constant barrage of Nixon speaking on television throughout the film becomes an incessant chatter that could easily drive someone insane. If only there was more detail and more delightful touches such as the scene in which Sam goes to an office of the Black Panthers to donate money. He suggests they could double their support by recruiting white folks if they called themselves the Black Zebras instead.
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON
Presented by Anhelo Productions; Worldwide sales by Senator International
Director: Niels Mueller
Screenwriters: Niels Muller, Kevin Kennedy
Producers: Alfonso Cuaron, Jorge Vergara
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editor: Jay Cassidy
Production designer: Lester Cohen
Music: Steven Stern
Sam Bicke: Sean Penn
Marie Bicke: Naomi Watts
Bonny: Don Cheadle
Jack Jones: Jack Thompson
Martin Jones: Brad Henke
Tom Ford: Nick Searcy
Julius Bicke: Michael Wincott
Harold Mann: Mykelti Williamson
No MPAA rating
Running time -- 103 minutes
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