Nixon a shocking study of human misery

The Assassination of Richard Nixon probes the depths of desperation and hopelessness with surprisingly engaging results. The film is seen through Sam Bicke’s (Sean Penn) distorted perception of life during the Watergate scandal.

Penn is absolutely riveting as he completely transforms into a man whose life slowly begins to circle the drain. Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle are phenomenal despite their limited screen time.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is loosely based on the true but little-known story of would-be assassin Sam Byck. Byck plotted to highjack and fly an airplane into the White House in an attempt to end President Nixon’s life. But, as we all know, that never came to pass: he was shot by airport security.

Sam (named changed from Byck to Bicke for the film) has failed at marriage, is a lousy salesman and blames society for his problems. Sam tries to change his life by starting his own business, but repeated loan denials sidetrack that pipe dream. Marie Bicke (Watts) has grown tired of Sam’s dreaming and despite his efforts to change, has moved on.

Sam is an unconfident salesperson and is continuously scorned by his boss. He lives in a tiny apartment with plain walls and records his thoughts about the politics of life on a tape recorder. Soon he snaps, proclaiming that someone must pay, and his fixation becomes clear as news breaks regarding Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-in that would lead to his resignation.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is hard to watch, even though Sam’s plan was ruined and the whole incident was lost in the midst of the Watergate fiasco. Prior to Sept. 11, it was thought unfathomable that an airplane could be used as a weapon, but more than 25 years earlier Byck had the same idea. The film forces audiences to relive those tragic events.

The film beautifully illustrates the lengths one will go to achieve a piece of the American dream. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is less a drama and more of a character study in which Sam basically embodies the entire film. His endless number of problems never allow the film to lag. It’s impossible to turn away. When Sam makes some rather unpopular decisions, one can’t help but be drawn even closer.

Penn proves, once again, that he is one of the generation’s best actors, with an innate ability to morph his mannerisms and appearance to fit each of his roles perfectly.

The film offers a version of 1974 most have never known before. More than just headlines, The Assassination of Richard Nixon delivers one of the most chilling character studies ever captured on film.

Rating: A-

Drama, R, Running time: 109 min.