THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON directed by Niels Mueller, written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, produced by Alfonso Cuarn, with Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle. 95 minutes. A THINKFilm release. Opens Friday (February 4). For venues and times, see Movies, page 86. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Executive produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Sideways director Alexander Payne, produced by Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamÿ También) and starring Oscar alumni Sean Penn, Naomi Watts and Don Cheadle, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon has what you could call pedigree overkill.
But the movie is depressing as hell, so it may need it.
Penn burrows deep inside a self-lacerating mass of frustrations named Sam Bicke. Humiliated in his job selling office furniture, feared by his estranged wife (Watts), hounded by President Nixon's ever-present lying face, he's pushed to the only possible plan of action.
Really good psycho-killer character studies are rare, and The Assassination Of Richard Nixon counts as one of the best in years. Bicke is an obsessive, and just to watch Penn sit waiting for the clock to flip over from 9:59 to make an appointed 10 o'clock call is to witness an aria of anxiety.
In another scene he tries to sign up with the Black Panthers and persuade them to rename themselves the Zebras. It's one of the few funny bits in a film that plays like one long clenching fist.
With its mid-70s setting and Travis Bickle psychographic, this movie invites comparisons to Taxi Driver. Penn is as good as De Niro was, but the film offers only torment where Scorsese framed Travis in grace.