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Niels Mueller
Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad William Henke, Nick Searcy, Michael Wincott, Mykelti Williamson, April Grace
Writing Credits:
Kevin Kennedy, Niels Mueller

The mad story of a true man.

A chiling drama that explores and exposes the dark side of the American Dream, The Assassination of Richard Nixon focuses on the tragic true story of Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), a disillusioned everyman who, in 1974, was driven to plot the assassination of the 37th president of the United States.

Box Office:
Opening Weekend
$37.547 thousand on 2 screens.
Domestic Gross
$697.759 thousand.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1 EX
English Dolby 2.0

Runtime: 95 min.
Price: $27.95
Release Date: 4/26/2005

• Trailers


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Assassination Of Richard Nixon (2004)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 19, 2005)

The title of The Assassination of Richard Nixon might make one think it’s a fantasy tale. After all, no one ever assassinated President Nixon, and unlike successors Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, no one ever got off a shot at him. That doesn’t mean no one wanted to kill Nixon, and Assassination follows a real-life story in that regard.

Assassination looks at the February 22, 1974 attempt of Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) to crash a jet into the White House. The movie briefly shows him at BWI Airport before it then jumps back two weeks to show Sam as he narrates a bizarre letter to Leonard Bernstein. From there we skip back one year and see Sam as he starts a new job as a salesman at Jack Jones’ (Jack Thompson) Fine Office Interiors. Jack offers Sam measures to boost his self-esteem, but these don’t seem to help the jittery and insecure salesman who quickly fails to live up to his boss’s expectations.

Other areas of his life manifest problems for Sam. His estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) wants little to do with him, though Sam maintains an unrealistic hope for their reunification. Sam also had a rift with his brother Julius (Michael Wincott) and the pair have little contact.

As the movie progresses, things don’t improve for Sam, and his mental health deteriorates. Obsessed with truthfulness, Jack’s duplicitous sales tactics bother him, and he starts to rally against “the system” which he sees represented by President Nixon. Sam even attempts to join the Black Panthers as a method to “fight the power” and he indicates he feels like a slave.

A few matters push Sam over the top. For one, the traveling tire store he wants to open with buddy Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle) fails to get off the ground when a government authority turns down their loan request. In addition, Naomi formally divorces him. Sam starts to go off the deep end and he hatches a plan to crash a plane into the White House.

How true to the source should biographical pictures be? I suppose that depends, and some have taken issue with Assassination. The flick changes the real man’s name from “Sam Byck” for reasons unknown, though I suspect legal issues were the cause. It holds pretty close to the facts of the matter in many ways, but it distorts things in some other ways.

A primary alteration comes from the casting, especially in regard to the handsome Penn. The real Byck was a fat, unattractive man; Paul Giamatti would have been a closer match, but even the Sideways star is notably better-looking than Byck. I suppose this kind of Hollywood poetic license isn’t a big deal, though, and it doesn’t detract from the story at hand.

I do take issue with the film’s tone, however. Assassination makes Bick out to be a more sympathetic character than he really deserves, and it diminishes his essentially insanity to some degree. Sure, Bick turns pretty nutty by the film’s end, but it portrays him as such a sad sack that we sort of kind of almost like the guy. Byck was a nutjob who performed some horrendous acts, so while I understand the attempt to get inside his head, I don’t like the way the film empathizes a little too much with his sensibility.

Part of the problem stems from the way that the movie hammers us over the head with its images. We repeatedly see Sam’s influences, as frequent shots of Nixon appear along with other imagery of injustices and protests. Geez, with all those factors at play, it’s no wonder the guy went bonkers; the flick makes the situation out to be so dire that his response seems almost logical.

Watts’ extremely unsympathetic turn as Marie assists in this tone. I wouldn’t say she comes from the “shrill harpy” school of acting, but she certainly makes Marie unlikable. This serves to force us to side with Sam even more, as we feel bad for the poor guy in the face of his cold, uncaring wife.

At least Penn does a good job in the lead. Since the movie follows him with an almost claustrophobic closeness, that becomes particularly important. Barely a shot appears without Penn in it, so the story rides on his work. Apparently influenced by De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin - along with a little Travis Bickle as well - Penn seems a bit mannered at times, but he invests himself fully in this awkward character and brings out his personality. Penn handles Sam’s decent well, as he rarely goes too over the top to depict the character’s disintegration.

While I don’t care for the film’s sympathetic emphasis, I do like the unusual way it brings out some character elements. For example, we learn that Jack wants Sam to cut off his mustache. Sam grew it to impress Marie, and he clings to it as a crucial factor in his desired reconciliation despite its actual - and obvious - irrelevance. This brings us to a scene in which he does shave it, and the movie depicts this as a much more monumental event than one might expect.

It’s moments like that during which we really get inside Sam’s head, and those are some of the flick’s best parts. Actually, I suppose most of the movie keeps us in Sam’s psyche, which his why the sympathetic tone probably makes sense. Because of this The Assassination of Richard Nixon presents a fairly involving take on a nutbag. I don’t think the movie needed to try so hard to put us on Sam’s side, but it creates an interesting look at an obscure historical footnote.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio C+/ Bonus D-

The Assassination of Richard Nixon appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Nothing about the picture excelled, but it fared well in general.

Only a few minor issues with sharpness occurred. I noticed a little softness at times, but the majority of the flick came across as well-defined and concise. No problems with jagged edges or shimmering popped up, and I noticed only a smidgen of light edge enhancement. As for source concerns, the movie looked grainier than usual but otherwise lacked any specks, marks or flaws.

As one might expect of a semi-gritty character drama, Assassination came with a subdued palette. A few shots depicted brighter hues - such as when we saw a bouquet of flowers - but the majority of the movie focused on drab tones. The DVD replicated these well, as it made them represent the visual design. Blacks were acceptably accurate and dense, and shadows were fairly smooth. Occasionally I thought things were slightly opaque, but those elements mostly appeared distinctive. In general, the movie looked fine, though it never really impressed.

Similar thoughts occurred when I greeted the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Given the movie’s restricted scope, I didn’t expect much from it, and the audio was acceptable for this material. The soundfield stayed heavily oriented toward the front channels, as I noticed little from the surrounds. The score occasionally swelled from the rear speakers but not much else occurred. In the front, there was acceptable stereo music and general ambience. This was okay for the material, as the movie didn’t lend itself toward any kind of auditory fireworks.

Sound quality was also perfectly fine. Speech seemed distinctive and clear, and I noticed no signs of edginess or issues with intelligibility. Music remained restrained but sounded acceptably full and broad. Effects were even more of a minor element. Those elements came across as clean and realistic, though their quiet nature meant that they never taxed my system. Because it attempted so little, I didn’t feel the mix deserved a grade above a “C+”, but I thought it was perfectly adequate for the material.

Almost no extras show up on this DVD. We find More from New Line, a collection of trailers. It includes ads for Primer and Vera Drake. Nothing directly connected to Assassination appears.

While I take issue with the manner in which it treats its main character, The Assassination of Richard Nixon provides a reasonably involving take on a mentally disturbed man. It brings a generally-forgotten historical event to the limelight and presents a generally well-executed take on the topic. The DVD offers good picture with average audio and lacks any substantial extras. The movie’s interesting enough for me to recommend a rental.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.375 Stars Number of Votes: 16
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