“Slavery never really ended in this country.”
Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) is a man who blames his problems on the unjust world. When the film The Assassination of Richard Nixon begins, Sam is separated from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts). She’s given up on Sam and his endless stream of ever-changing jobs, and she supports herself and her children by waitressing. When Sam gets a job as an office furniture salesman, he starts giving Marie a little money. Sam still hopes that he and Marie will get back together–even though it’s perfectly obvious that she can barely be polite.
Sam has a scheme to start a mobile tyre service with longtime friend Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle). Sam knows the tyre business–his brother owns a large tyre shop, and apparently, Sam used to work there. Sam claims he left the job because he was made to “lie”. When Sam applies for a business loan from a bank, he embarks on a long explanation to the loan officer about business ethics, and while Sam imagines that he’s painting a good picture of himself, he appears extremely unrealistic, volatile, and disturbed.
Under mounting pressure, Sam unravels–developing a grand scheme or purpose to his life that results in a plot to kill Richard Nixon. As a character study, the film does a marvelous job focusing on a deranged individual who finds excuses for his own ineptitude. Sam continually ascribes high motives to his failures–leaving the tyre shop for his refusal to lie, for example, and while we don’t really know why Sam left the family business, another scene affords Sam the opportunity to take the high road when his boss demands to know if Sam is married. Sam lies. He lies because he wants to keep his job–that’s understandable, but one can hardly accuse Sam of taking the impractical moral high ground at that point.
Sam finds life to be a truly painful ordeal, and Sean Penn pours his heart and soul into this role. At times, the film is almost too painful to watch as Sam struggles to align his failure with the reality of his existence. The film does a phenomenal job of creating a character of a man so downtrodden by his own failures, he has to create a grand gesture to make his existence meaningful. Some of the best scenes occur at the furniture shop when Sam is initiated into the ethics of salesmanship. A sales job is probably the last thing Sam should try as he simply lacks the confidence he needs to clinch sales, and it’s an environment that sets him adrift into deeper insecurity. The film is very loosely based on the true story of Sam Byck–a man who had a plan to assassinate Richard Nixon.