The wormy mustache and goofy, feckless grin; the ugly fat neckties that look like they were cut out of striped wrapping paper; the whiny, begging voice that’s the sound of a man being quietly strangled — in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sean Penn plays the sort of flamboyantly recessive loser-nerd who, by now, may be more familiar as a movie character embodied by tour de force actors like Sean Penn than he is from real life.
It’s 1974, and Penn’s Sam Bicke is a walking failure who works as a salesman at an office furniture store. He’s so disconnected, from others and from himself, that he can hardly close a deal on a Naugahyde chair. Yet Sam rationalizes his loser’s karma by declaring, in impotent bursts of bitterness, that he’s the last honest man in a world of lies. When he tries to join the Black Panthers, you realize his honesty is madness.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon was inspired by the true story of Sam Byck, who in 1974 made a hapless attempt to hijack an airliner so that he could steer it into the White House. In the movie, this bizarre foreshadowing of 9/11 doesn’t exude much resonance, but when Bicke’s plan disintegrates into violence, it’s as shocking to him as it is to us. Director Niels Mueller’s attempt to create a middle-class Taxi Driver (he tips his hand a bit smugly by respelling Byck’s name to evoke Travis Bickle) has a creepy, meticulous exactitude. Penn’s performance is really a profound study of a particular type of loner that no one has pegged better: the sociopathic putz.