The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a very well-made film, with the usual superior acting from Sean Penn — and I never want to see it again.
The plot is based on the real-life story of Samuel Bicke (Penn), a man who (at least as portrayed here) is the very definition of the word “loser.” He has a dead-end job as an office-supply salesman (at which he almost strives to do poorly), he is separated from his wife, and seemingly his only friend in the world is Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), a black garage mechanic who indulges Sam’s half-baked idea of starting a car-tire delivery service.
But events not only don’t happen quickly enough for Sam — they usually fail to happen at all. When Sam applies for a small-business loan for his delivery idea, he is told that the approval process will take six to eight weeks. But Sam thinks he can get quicker results if he pesters the loan supervisor to death about his application. Sam’s estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) is polite to Sam but is clearly eager to move on from him, but Sam keeps bothering her at her job, whining and begging for a second chance at the marriage.
Worst of all is that, rather than facing up to reality, Sam is eager to blame “The Man” for all of his problems. He pesters Marie about the short skirt she has to wear at her job as a cocktail waitress. And while Bonny is surprisingly agreeable about his fate in life, Sam keeps trying to convince Bonny that because he’s black, anyone who doesn’t indulge him is automatically a racist.
Assassination fairly obviously uses Taxi Driver as a template for its story. Where Taxi‘s Travis Bickle has only a faint association with his fellow workers to bolster him up, Sam’s only friend is the extremely patient Bonny. Where Travis kept a diary for his supposedly deep introspections, Sam records audio tapes that he intends to mail to his hero, composer Leonard Bernstein.
As noted, Penn offers another of his unflinching portraits of people’s darker sides. Indeed, there’s not a bad performance in the entire cast. Where the movie falters is that it’s so eager to punch home Sam’s alienation that it leaves a lot of ciphers behind. Sam’s sales boss obviously looks down on Sam and does everything to prove what an inferior salesman he is, yet he appears extremely surprised when Sam finally quits his job in a huff, as though the boss hadn’t been baiting him to do exactly that to start with. We never really learn why Bonny indulges this man who is obviously going nowhere, or what Sam’s ex-wife ever saw in him to start with. The result is that the movie is often just off-putting — you end up cringing as though you were one of the guys getting cornered by Sam for an endless conversation.
And yet, the movie is tightly, professionally accomplished. (In particular, the final scene perfectly encapsulates Sam’s bitterness at being a non-entity in life.) And as always, Sean Penn digs into his character and brings out every nuance. So watch The Assassination of Richard Nixon at least once — and then be grateful for your comparatively decent lot in life.