Here is a film where the title lies to you. There is no assassination of Richard Nixon in this film. Oh, there’s an attempt, but unless you live in a delusion, Nixon wasn’t ever assassinated. I suppose you could change that little detail and make an intriguing film, but then the tagline of “inspired by true events” would read as even more of a lie than it already does.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon stars Shaun Penn as Samuel Bicke, a salesman as we open up the film. He has ideals, just like most people, but he’s willing to fight for his. He hates dishonesty, and as a result, has never been able to hold down a job for very long. Why he wants to be a salesman at all is beyond me, considering once he gets the job he and his boss lie all the time, but I suppose supporting your family comes before ideals. His family is broken; he and his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts) have separated, and he only gets to see his children every Sunday.
He has one friend, from all accounts, who comes in the form of a mechanic named Bonny (Don Cheadle). They plan, at one point, to start a tire distribution service, although we later learn that loans take 8-10 weeks to get approved, and having a black man as your partner is likely to get you turned down. Remember, this is the 1970s, as the film incessantly tells us, although for a lot of the time, it doesn’t feel like it takes place in the 70s.
Most of the film consists of Sam going around hating what his life has turned into, as well as hating the lengths that people go to in order to have a better life. He hates every boss on earth for making their employees (which he deems should really be called “slaves”) do demeaning things, while he really hates Richard Nixon for spreading lies. We see a lot of shots of Nixon talking to reporters and interviewers, which is just about as much of the 70s appeal as we get.
This is a downer of a film, although I felt mostly indifference while watching it. If our main character would just stop his insufferable whining once in a while, he probably wouldn’t have such a terrible life. It’s clear that he doesn’t gel with the current American values. I wonder if he ever considered moving. Regardless, this is a film about a man who doesn’t ever do anything to improve his situation.
Like I said earlier, this film is based on true events. There was a man named Samuel Byck (why the spelling was changed for the film is something I don’t care about), and his situation was similar to how it was portrayed in this film. If that’s the case, then he had a miserable life but should have picked up his socks and done something about it. Or maybe he should have moved, because it’s clear that he and America didn’t get along very well.
This doesn’t mean that Sean Penn didn’t give a good performance here. He’s nuanced, and we’re never sure exactly what he’s going to do. It’s effective, although coming from Penn, it isn’t much of a surprise. Supporting roles are also strong, but the supporting cast doesn’t get near enough time to do anything of importance. This is a problem. We spend too much time with Penn, and not enough with Cheadle, Watts, or anyone else in the supporting cast.
I didn’t like this. Other characters are potentially more empathetic than Penn’s is. Sam’s wife has to hold a family together, and at one point, we see her with another man. Nothing is done with that, though. Bonny is a black man who may or may not be discriminated against frequently, but nothing comes of that either. These situations that could have been far more interesting than the story of the most pathetic man in the world.
The plot spends a great deal of time showing us why we’re supposed to care about this man, although mostly we just sit around and watch him mope and complain about his life. Have I made this clear yet? When discussing the plot, though, it means that not a whole lot actually happens, with the decision to try to kill Nixon and going through with that plan taking maybe 20 minutes out of the entire film. There’s not a lot of build-up to the attempt, even though we do understand that he doesn’t like Nixon very much. Apart from being such an idealist and hating liars, he has no defining personality traits and doesn’t get to develop except for having that hatred build inside him until he finally snaps.
Considering how long it takes for us to get to the assassination, I thought for the longest time that it would be a metaphorical killing of the ideas that Nixon was bringing to his campaign. But, no, that might have been interesting, so the film doesn’t take that approach. Yes, I understand it’s meant to be based on a true story, but a note in the credits tells us that it isn’t rooted solely in fact. This tells me that liberties were taken, and it also tells me that more should have been taken to assure that we don’t get a boring film.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a boring film about a man who was too stupid to help himself in his life. As a result, he tried to kill the president of the United States. The acting is good, but the only character that got enough screentime was Sean Penn’s, despite his character being the least interesting of the batch. I also didn’t feel like I was back in the 1970s, which meant the immersion needed wasn’t there.