Inspired by real events in 1974 when 44-year-old Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn) reaches a nadir in his life, as his estranged wife (Naomi Watts) and his brother (Michael Wincott) finally abandon him, his loan for a new business with his auto mechanic friend and would be partner Bonny (Don Cheadle) is declined and he is struggling to hold onto his job as an office supply salesman for his boss (Jack Thompson). Desperation breeds uncharacteristic determination in Bicke, who sets out on a single minded crusade to right the wrongs against him – and the world – in a single act that would make his presence felt.

Sean Penn gives another outstanding performance.

They don't call him Sean De Niro for nothing. After recent powerhouse outings in 21 Grams (2003) and Mystic River (2003), Sean Penn gives another meaty, method performance worthy of his nickname in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a film inspired by true events.

Former US president Richard Millhouse Nixon did not survive the character assassination of the Watergate scandal, but he did a real-life assassination plot to end his life in 1974 by one Samuel "Bicke". (Forecasting the terrorist attacks of 9/11 some three decades hence, Bicke attempted to hijack a plane and have it flown kamikaze-style into the White House). Sean Penn plays Bicke sympathetically, an 'everyman' experiencing extreme difficulty navigating the American Dream. Bicke's marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts) has just fallen apart, he is repeatedly humiliated by his boss at work, and he feels powerless and lied to. An ever-present spectre, Nixon's image wallpapers Bicke's tattered existence via TV images and photographs. He becomes the ultimate scapegoat for Bicke's simmering rage, a silent witness to Bicke's slide into depression and desperation.

Penn is perfectly cast as the frail, would-be assassin Samuel Bicke – after all he has made a career out of tackling roles where a character's life falls apart. Think of Daulton Lee, the young, gung-ho go-between for political informant Christopher Boyce, who Penn played in 1985's The Falcon and The Snowman. Or crime lawyer David Kleinfeld in Brian De Palma's unofficial Scarface sequel, Carlito's Way (1993). Penn's wiggy perm and '80s suits were the perfect costume for Kleinfeld's over-arching, reckless ambitions.

Penn plays Bicke with a delicate balance between nuance and intensity, his performance seemingly motivated by a desire to have us understand what could drive such an "ordinary" man to carry out such inordinate actions.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon
is disturbing, and in my view remarkable, a worthy inclusion to the dwindling 'lonely man' genre that defined American cinema in the 1970s, such as Taxi Driver to which there are obvious comparisons. Great performances aside however, (including one from Jack Thompson as Bicke's crass boss ), all the creative elements work to form a quiet, moving and socially relevant film about displacement and depression in Western life.

The cinematography is naturalistic and subtly composed, providing a direct window into how Bicke might have seen the world during his decline. The script is lean yet poetic, and the overlay of Bicke's letter to composer Leonard Bernstein – his fantasy hero/confessor – drives the point of the film home: this is what happens when you take a man's voice away. While violent and irrational, the conclusion is shocking and sad not sensational or gratuitous. It is heartening that first-time director Niels Mueller didn't go down the hysterical-pumped-up-gun-totin'-anti-hero path taken by Joel Schumacher with Falling Down (1993). As Penn declared, he doesn't make films that say 'If you've got great abs it's okay to kill'. Served up with compassion, The Assassination of Richard Nixon makes a welcome change from the cold-hearted vigilante fare so often dished up by Hollywood.

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1 hour 35 min