Mark Kermode - Failed attempt

Film - A real-life loser should have stayed in the dustbin of history, writes Mark Kermode

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Since the days of the Watergate scandal, the spectre of Richard Nixon has haunted cinema as a symbolic touchstone of corruption. While poli-tical thrillers from Alan Pakula's All the President's Men to Oliver Stone's Nixon have dealt directly with Tricky Dicky's labyrinthine lies, other films (in a disparate range of genres) have waved Nixonian titbits as easy indicators of a more general moral malaise.

In the opening scenes of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for example, we hear Nixon's voice blaring away on the radio ("I have never been a quitter . . .") as the "innocent" lovers' car breaks down, forcing them to take refuge in Frank-N-Furter's castle of decadence. When Johnny Depp's "Duke" endures a paranoid, acid-crazed meltdown in the middle of Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is Nixon who blathers incessantly from the television, signalling the death of the American dream. The gun-toting bank robbers of Kathy Bigelow's action romp Point Break wear rubber masks of America's "Ex-Presidents", the most prominent of which is the bulbous-nosed likeness of a grinning Nixon.

My own personal favourite Nixon film gag is from the (sadly) little-seen exploitation satire Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, in which Shannon Tweed attempts to prove that all men are rubbish by citing the example of Richard Nixon, to which the famously politically incorrect Bill Maher replies: "I liked Nixon. I thought he was funny . . ."

While the title of The Assassination of Richard Nixon may suggest a political thriller, the evocation of a murderous plot against the 37th president of the United States (who, as we all know, died peacefully in his bed) is more allusive than descriptive.

Written and directed by feature first-timer Niels Mueller, the film is inspired by the strange true story of Samuel Byck, an unemployed salesman who in 1974 attempted to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House - an endeavour that gained eerie significance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Yet the meat of Mueller's movie is the increasing existential despair of his unloveable anti-hero, renamed Sam Bicke (presumably to accommodate the many fictional inventions) and played to death by an earnest Sean Penn, whose empathy for the underdog is here to the fore. Physically clumsy in his outsized sports jacket, and emotionally crippled by the failure of his marriage and his job, Bicke is directed towards the grim self-improvement mantras of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People - with genuinely pathetic results.

But as it becomes increasingly apparent that he can close a deal on neither his personal nor professional life, Bicke's anger turns outwards to the corruption of a world in which a wanton crook such as Nixon can wheedle his way into the White House, becoming the dead head from which the proverbial fish of American society has rotted downwards.

There are several obvious parallels between Penn's Sam Bicke and Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's infinitely superior Taxi Driver: both are portraits of maleness in crisis; both are losers cast adrift from mainstream society; both attempt to validate their existence by taking pot-shots at politicians.

Yet while Bickle was a terrifying, mesmerising creation, whose growing madness kept the viewer enthralled, Bicke is a void into whose bottomless pit of misery audience sympathy simply ebbs away. If Penn's characterisation bears any resemblance to its true-life counterpart, no wonder the real Byck was so swiftly consigned to the dustbin of history, robbed of even the rewards of notoriety.

Crucially, unlike Arthur Miller's classic Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, to whom he also owes an inspirational debt, Bicke fails to engage us emotionally, leaving the viewer feeling empty rather than empathetic.

While our hearts should bleed when Sam receives his divorce papers, for instance, we are merely left wondering how such a monumental screw-up ever managed to marry someone as attractive as the sparky waitress played by Naomi Watts in the first place.

There are moments of relief, most notably in a bizarrely comic scene (surely an invention of Mueller and his co-writer, Kevin Kennedy), in which Bicke attempts to convince the Black Panthers to rename themselves the Zebras to encompass the oppression of downtrodden white men such as himself.

The supporting cast is strong, too, with Don Cheadle and Michael Wincott making the most of their essentially incidental roles, and Jack Thompson gnarling away at the office-furniture scenery as Sam's bull-headed boss.

The end result, however, is an actorly exercise in period ennui which impresses on a technical level, but which (like the long-forgotten Byck) ultimately fails to find its intended targets.