3.5 StarsEd Johnson-Ott
The Assassination of Richard Nixon, playing at Key Cinemas for another week or so, is not a political fantasy. Rather, it is the inspired-by-fact story of the man who made an attempt at hijacking a plane to fly into the White House. Sean Penn and Naomi Watts
Sean Penn plays Sam Bicke, the sad-sack behind the hijacking attempt. The story of Sam, as presented by first-time director Niels Mueller, does not delve deeply enough into Sam's specific madness. Most of the film is simply a routine portrait of the disintegration of a middle-age man. Were it not for Penn's performance, there would be scant reason to sit through this.
But Penn is there, which makes the film mandatory viewing for anyone who shares my belief that he is the finest actor of his generation. Though he has played characters like this before - Sam is basically Eddie from Hurlyburly without the cocaine - he still finds new ways to add detail to a character ill-served by the screenplay.
The film has its moments. In one scene, Sam visits the Black Panthers to donate money and wax enthusiastic about the group. He is concerned, however, because the image of the organization is so ... black. Perhaps, he suggests guilelessly to an amused Panther leader (Mykelti Williamson), the group could attract more white people if they changed their name from Panthers to Zebras.
Most of the time, however, Sam is not colorful. He is an earnest, sad man fraying at the ends. He desperately wants to move back in with his estranged wife Marie (a very credible Naomi Watts) and the kids. His boss Jack (Jack Thompson) yells at him when he is honest with customers. He dreams of opening a mobile tire store with his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle, rock solid as always), but we know better.
The film suffers from an overabundance of quiet desperation scenes and not enough details about what drew Marie and Bonny to him in the first place. How unfair for a creative team to force Sean Penn to do all the heavy lifting.