"THE ASSASSINATION of Richard Nixon" lures you like a scary dream. That provocative title, for instance, what does it mean? You know the real President Nixon was never assassinated. But as Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) arrives at the Baltimore airport on Feb. 22, 1974, full of foreboding purpose, it's clear something's going to happen. Something terrible. (You also know that Penn never met an intense role he didn't like. There's going to be some kind of dark trouble here.)
Unfortunately, what follows is only moderately compelling. Niels Mueller's film, based on the true story of Bicke -- who certainly planned to kill the president that day -- lays down such inevitable train tracks, you assume there will be subsequent surprises. There are few.
Sean Penn as Sam Bicke and Naomi Watts as Marie in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."
In a flashback narrative, we meet Sam, who's deeply troubled by the white lies of salesmanship in his new job as an office furniture salesman. And he's shocked when his boss Jack (Jack Thompson) commends Nixon as the ultimate salesman. After all, Jack says, the president persuaded the country to vote for him twice based on the same lie: that he would end the Vietnam War.
The motivation mounts. Sam's separation from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), is rapidly spiraling into divorce. His application for a private business loan is never going to happen; you just know that from the get-go. And he keeps catching TV glimpses of that dark-browed chief executive, apparently presiding over the Whole Darned Mess. Sam's rigid adherence to honesty and his apparent inability to understand the moral give and take of real life, send him hurtling along toward one plan of action. And he has already found a handgun, which is owned by his friend and would-be business associate, Bonny (Don Cheadle).
"All I want is a little piece of the American dream," says Sam, in a series of reel-to-reel tapes he sends to musical conductor Leonard Bernstein -- a public figure Sam selects as the person to hear his moral justifications. "Is that too much to expect?"
The problem is, "Assassination" just makes you think of other, better films that have tackled similar subjects. For instance, Fred Zinnemann's brilliant "The Day of the Jackal" follows a professional assassin (Edward Fox) as he attempts to kill French President Charles de Gaulle. Again, history tells us that de Gaulle was never gunned down. Yet in this 1973 film, we are fraught with tension and dread as the authorities, who have received a tip about the Jackal's intentions, desperately try to find him before he squeezes the trigger. There's no such mounting apprehension in "Assassination." You just feel a removed pity for Sam.
As Sam mock-fires Bonny's gun at a stranger and, later, when he suddenly runs away from an electronic airport metal detector, scared that it will reveal his concealed weapon, the scenes echo similar ones in the 1976 "Taxi Driver." But Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese's movie (which was partly inspired by the real Sam Bicke) is a magnificent film-noirish psychodrama in which a taxi driver evolves into an apocalyptic gunman. In "Assassination," first-time director Mueller and his co-writer, Kevin Kennedy, spend so much time building Sam's justification, we get a shopping list of motivations rather than a charged story. We are never drawn to Sam Bicke the way we are to Travis Bickle. That may sound like the difference between reality and drama, but it's really about the importance of packing a better firearm when you wanted to tell a loaded story.
THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON ( R, 95 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and graphic violence. At Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.