In the years following 9/11, many films have been delayed, canceled, or outright altered due to "sensitive" content (terrorism, the hijacking of airplanes, the senseless destruction of important, well-populated buildings, etc.). But first-time director Niels Mueller's The Assassination of President Nixon tackles those issues head-on, doing so with such determined fearlessness that I had a hard time separating my discomfort with the subject matter from my highly professional and unbiased critique.
Based on a true story from 1974, Assassination attempts to explore the events of a man's life that led him to hold up a plane at gunpoint with the intention of flying it into the White House and killing Nixon. With creepy brown eyes and a nearly undecipherable mumble, Sean Penn's troubled Samuel Bicke is pathetic and thoroughly unlikable. His wife (Naomi Watts) hates him, his only friend (Don Cheadle) pities him, and his boss at the furniture store patronizes him. While watching Bicke's misguided attempts to woo his family back, and listening to his ridiculous rants about inequality, it's impossible to sympathize with him on any level.
In Taxi Driver--by which Assassination is clearly influenced--Travis Bickle (an intriguingly similar name) shows flickers of redemption and we are treated to a character who might once have been good. But Bicke is a whack-job from the get-go, and we wonder how he ties his shoes, let alone fathered three kids. Penn's social ineptitude seems inherent, not instilled by a fucked-up world, as Mueller would have us believe with his heavy-handed use of archived Nixon speeches. Bicke's final act is thus not the chilling product of a society we are all a part of, but the meaningless deed of an unhinged soul. We could watch the two hours leading up to Bicke's hijack, or we could just watch the hijack, and feel exactly the same. In the context of our current cultural climate, it's a particularly disturbing scenario--and in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, that's all it is.