- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

A movie titled “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” must be trying to tell its audience something at odds with the historical record, since the late president never fell victim to an assassin.

Could it be sheer human interest that motivated this pathetic chronicle of a failed assassin, Samuel Bicke? Given the stale and pedestrian shortcomings in the case history formulated by director Niels Mueller and his co-writer, Kevin Kennedy, it’s difficult to give the movie credit for insight into an unhappy, self-destructive personality that managed to escape previous cinematic notice.

Portrayed by Sean Penn, this deranged protagonist never got close to his intended target, but on Feb. 22, 1974 he did shoot a pilot and co-pilot after storming a Delta plane in the process of boarding at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He was gunned down soon afterward by airport police. End of sad escapade.

Self-aggrandizing letters mailed before the calamity may have hinted at a plan to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House. Evidently, Mr. Bicke compiled a one-sided, “Dear Maestro” correspondence to the late Leonard Bernstein, perhaps envisioned as a celebrity soul mate because he had been a conspicuous patron of the Black Panther Party. In a sequence that dabbles in excruciating humorous hindsight, the film observes Mr. Penn’s lost soul trying to ingratiate himself with a Panther local in his Pennsylvania hometown.

Like “The Day of the Jackal,” “Assassination” needs to finesse a fundamentally anticlimactic suspense narrative: It points the killer toward a grandiose historical crime that he could never have realized. The compensatory element here is supposed to be Mr. Penn’s acting prowess, grueling to a fault in recent years.

While toting up the failures that may have fueled Sam Bicke’s homicidal resentments, the filmmakers provide several supporting actors with striking opportunities to score off a stoogey, slow-witted central figure. The contrast acquires an almost Falstaffian dimension when Jack Thompson appears as a furniture retailer, who seems to be keeping Bicke around for laughs until he finally has to sack him. Don Cheadle exemplifies common sense and common decency as a friend who gets cruelly misused by the desperate Bicke. Michael Wincott, who has crafted a career around sepulchral cameos, adds another with a steely impersonation of the protagonist’s fed-up elder brother, Julius.

Sean Penn is a pushover for any role that makes a spectacle of crazed self-pity. Whether determined to embody haplessness or wrath, the actor can’t be prevented from tearing passions to tatters. Coming in the wake of “I Am Sam,” “21 Grams” and “Mystic River,” the deadly sad sack Sam Bicke promised to be a histrionic ordeal. In that sense, “Assassination” gets the job done.

**

TITLE: “The Assassination of Richard Nixon”

RATING: R (Sustained morbid emphasis; occasional graphic violence and profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Niels Mueller. Screenplay by Mr. Mueller and Kevin Kennedy. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. Production design by Lester Cohen. Costume design by Aggie Guerard Rodgers. Music by Steven Stern.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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