The Assassination of Richard Nixon (15)

Where's Travis Bickle when you need him?
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The Independent Culture

'They can rebuild the White House, but they will never forget me," says Sean Penn's would-be president-killer Sam Bicke in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. In fact Byck, as he was really called, was forgotten overnight, despite a botched attempt on Nixon's life in 1974. Byck remains a strictly C-list name among American political killers, although he had his moment as a featured role in Steven Sondheim's musical Assassins. Never heard of Byck? Neither, by all accounts, had Paul Schrader when he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver - so any rhymes between Byck and Travis Bickle are strictly coincidental.

Yet it's hard to get Taxi Driver out of your head when watching The Assassination of Richard Nixon - mainly because Niels Mueller's film manages to tell us so much less of interest about American political anxiety than Martin Scorsese's film did nearly 30 years ago. Bicke, like Robert De Niro's Bickle, is a tormented outsider; unlike him, he's entirely without lone-wolf glamour. He's a middle-aged man in a cheap suit, separated from his wife, jealous of his more successful brother, and struggling at work to sell office furniture to men in loud check suits. His boss (Jack Thompson) is a boor who not only plies Sam with Dale Carnegie and The Power of Positive Thinking, but also admires Richard Nixon as the world's greatest salesman, since he successfully conned the American electorate twice with the unfulfilled promise of pulling out of Vietnam.

The minute we see Thompson's character lording it beefily over his table in a cocktail bar, we know we're watching social satire marginally less subtle than The Flintstones. Arthur Miller surely said the last word on the American cult of salesmanship in 1945 - which makes it all the more impressive that David Mamet was able to provide further commentary in 1984's Glengarry Glen Ross. Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy simply have nothing to add, regurgitating clichés about self-help manuals and their misleading mantras of empowerment. "All I want," Bicke moans in one of his taped letters to his hero Leonard Bernstein, "is a little piece of the American Dream. Is that too much to expect?" But is it too much to expect that a film about the obsession with the American Dream could somehow find a way to avoid having to use that dire cliché?

The film is on more fertile ground when dealing with Bicke's inept rebellion, briefly opening up a promising seam as Bicke narcissistically identifies with America's oppressed minorities.

There's a lively moment when Bicke visits a Black Panthers office and suggests that the party ought to go two-tone: "become the Zebras and membership will double." A white middle-class nebbish high on black radicalism: what a satiric vehicle that might have made for Gene Wilder or Steve Martin in the Seventies, but here it doesn't quite catch fire because Penn is too earnest for comedy. It is Bicke's abjection we notice, rather than any ironic potential for his idiocy to let him rise above circumstances.

You feel that Penn isn't really able to see Bicke as anything other than a ridiculous loser: he can't quite capture the mindset of a man who strains feebly to will himself into winning. There's a moment in a diner when his waitress wife Marie (Naomi Watts) snaps at him, and Penn's mouth fixes in a gawky double-take - and instantly our sympathy is entirely with Marie for having to tolerate this overgrown lost puppy for so long.

After a brief, bracing episode of discretion in the recent 21 Grams, Penn is back to his old overstatement: late in the film, he does an extraordinary flexing routine with his neck that's quite painful to watch, like some grisly form of actor's-preparation calisthenics.

Penn's excesses stand out all the more against the relaxed realism in the performances of Watts, Don Cheadle as Bicke's garage-mechanic friend, and Michael Wincott, who coolly steals the show as Sam's older brother, a quietly commanding Old Testament authority figure.

The best thing about the film is its claustrophobic look, evoking Seventies America not as the usual festival of kitsch but as a drab brown hold-over from the Fifties. In the end, however, Mueller can't escape the drawback of choosing an underdog's paranoia as a subject: it's bound to let us in for streams of whinging, self-aggrandising rhetoric (not every political crazy has the poetic grace of the Unabomber). Bicke doesn't serve as any kind of revealing mirror to America, only as a conduit for received wisdom, and any parallels with the contemporary situation are without real resonance, although Mueller is honest enough in his notes to point out that the script was originally written before the current Bush presidency. You almost wonder whether the film might have been bankrolled by the CIA to discredit the idea that political neurosis makes for interesting cinema.