The Assassination of Richard Nixon is not really about Sam Bicke's little-known, confused, and wildly unsuccessful plan to actually assassinate Richard Nixon in early 1974. It's more about the psychology of a man driven to such acts -- and what specifically about America makes unstable men like Bicke feel pressured to take such incoherently desperate measures. Far more than a political or action thriller (though there's a little of that, too, at the very end), it's the portrait of a loser who feels inadequate at every level of society: at work, at home, and most crucially, within himself. It takes an excellent actor to pull off such a role, and Sean Penn delivers with one of his best performances -- his every shaky sentence, fearful glance, and defeated gait exuding fatalistic uncertainty.
Along the way, Niels Mueller takes a hard, unflinching look at somber issues rarely dealt with in American movies, particularly the flexible ethics of the workplace, where barely-cutting-it schmoes like Sam Bicke are cut down at every turn, made to lie and feel lousy about themselves. It's that constant humiliation (a failed marriage to Naomi Watts doesn't help), more than any real articulate rage against Nixon or the political system, that fuels Penn's rather hysterical response to his situation. It's an unceasingly dreary world in which he's trapped, with Mueller framing his protagonist's life almost exclusively in unappealing settings, such as the tacky furniture store where he works (typically poorly) as a salesman; the ramshackle house where his soon-to-be-ex-wife and family lives; the icily bureaucratic offices where his loan application languishes; and the tire stores and garages where he hatches his improbable scheme to launch his own business. The script wisely adds some touches of morbid humor (particularly in the scene where a clueless Penn tries to join the Black Panthers), and Don Cheadle is excellent in a supporting role as Penn's only friend (a relationship, naturally, that Penn utterly sabotages). It's too much of a downer (right down to the shoot-it-out ending) to have wide appeal, but it's a riveting look into the underside of the lives of those who lack the basic social skills necessary to enter even the lower American middle class.