During an economic downturnor even during a boomthe President can become a convenient scapegoat for a person's day-to-day problems, blamed for withholding a slice of the American Dream. Part Travis Bickle, part Willy Loman, Sean Penn's downtrodden character in The Assassination Of Richard Nixon eventually concludes that his failures are the failures of the system, when in fact the system seems to be working just fine. In his fine directorial debut, Niels Mueller pegs a botched assassination attempt on the commonplace miseries of a man who lethally yoked his own shortcomings with an overripe sense of social justice and grand destiny. In doing so, he shows the gulf between the realities of the American Dream and what an unreasonable person might expect from it.
Looking shifty in a cheap suit and mysterioso mustache, Penn sinks gracefully into the role of a working-class schlub who views himself as a "grain of sand" on a beach, but a series of setbacks calcify his determination to leave a mark. Cast out from his brother's tire operation, Penn lands a job selling office furniture alongside officious Type-A businessmen, but he doesn't have the stomach for salesmanship, which he believes is premised on lies. Separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and children, he stakes his fortunes on a hare-brained entrepreneurial venture in which he and his partner Don Cheadle would sell tires from a hollowed-out school bus, but he has trouble getting a loan approved. After hitting bottom, Penn aims to strike back at the system, so he plots an airplane hijacking with the intent to drive the nose into The White House.
Far from the leftist fantasy its title evokes, The Assassination Of Richard Nixon deals with the cataclysmic result when idealism and solipsism collide: Based on a real figure, Penn's would-be assassin relates his struggle to everyone else's, even when other don't share his outrage. In one particularly funny scene, he strolls into a Black Panthers office with a proposal to start the "Zebras," a black and white revolutionary coalition that would more than double their current membership. Comparisons to Taxi Driver are unavoidable and mostly unflattering to Mueller's film, but Assassination engages more directly with the political fissures of the time, which deeply divided the nation. At one point, a seasoned businessman hails Nixon as the greatest salesman in the country, because he was elected on the promise to get America out of Vietnam, failed to deliver, and then won reelection on exact same promise. Given President Bush's recent triumph at the polls, he could no doubt exceed his quota hawking office furniture.