The Assassination of Richard Nixon

On Feb. 22, 1974, a disillusioned loner named Samuel Bicke boarded a plane at Baltimore Washington International Airport with a gun, intending to hijack the aircraft and kill President Nixon by crashing it into the White House. The plot, which never got off the ground literally or figuratively, was largely forgotten by history until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which eerily reminded some people of what Bicke had tried to do.

I assume one of those people was Niels Mueller, who has directed and co-written (with Kevin Kennedy) “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” which dramatizes the events leading up to Bicke’s aborted hijacking. Mueller is a relatively new face in the film industry, having written the indie comedy “Tadpole” and worked in miscellaneous capacities on miscellaneous other films. “Assassination” is a starkly ambitious endeavor for such a fellow, and he pulls it off well, if not perfectly.

Chronologically, we begin a year before the incident, with Bicke (Sean Penn) working as an office-furniture salesman in Pittsburgh. He’s idealistic and perpetually wounded, a born loser whose ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts) doesn’t dislike him so much as she pities him.

It becomes clear almost immediately that sales is not the profession for Bicke, because he strongly disapproves of lying or any other kind of manipulation. His boss, Jack (Jack Jones), gives him books by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale to read and digest, hoping it will make him a better salesman, but Bicke isn’t cut out for such smooth operations. He wants to start his own business by turning an old bus into a mobile tire store that would bring the merchandise right to the customer. He wants his part of the American Dream.

Like many protagonists in 1970s cinema (not to mention in the actual 1970s), Bicke becomes disillusioned and reclusive. Jack lauds the Watergate-plagued Nixon as the best salesman ever, saying he won the 1968 election based on his pledge to get America out of Vietnam and then, when he didn’t achieve that, made the same pledge in 1972. “He made a promise, didn’t deliver, and then sold us on the exact same promise all over again,” Jack says with a distinct air of admiration. Bicke, however, is not impressed. He begins to see Nixon as the embodiment of corruption, failed dreams and broken promises.

It is fitting that such a story should take place in the ’70s, as Penn’s performance closely resembles the work of two ’70s icons. He has the stammering fussiness of Dustin Hoffman and the slow-burning intensity of Robert De Niro — especially De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” where his character, Travis Bickle, had many of the same characteristics as the similarly named Samuel Bicke.

The way Mueller builds the film is good, coaxing us into Bicke’s world with details and nuances. We don’t exactly agree with everything Bicke thinks, but we are sympathetic toward him. We can see where he’s coming from, anyway.

Once Bicke’s plan begins to form, though, the film becomes muddled and unfocused, throwing itself into climax mode even while delaying the actual climax. And though the conclusion is gripping, I can’t shake the idea that Mueller is trying to wring profound truths out of an episode that is not actually very earth-shattering. Maybe there are deep, universal themes to be found in the life of Samuel Bicke — but then, maybe he was just a disenchanted working-class slob who went a little crazy. Travis Bickle could be Everyman because he wasn’t real. Samuel Bicke, as an actual person, can only be himself, and Mueller doesn’t quite make a compelling case that he represented any more than that.

B- (1 hr., 35 min.; R, a little harsh profanity, brief strong violence.)