Not Penn. Heading back into multiplexes just in time for Oscar season, he returns to the big screen to play a man with a grudge, a man who's been so put-upon that he takes out his wrath on a divisive Republican president -- one, we might add, who's been re-elected despite his continued involvement in a war that seems to be going nowhere. And how does Penn's character manifest this wrath? Why, he plots to hijack a commercial passenger plane and crash it into the White House. Happy New Year, moviegoers!
OK, so the president in question is Richard M. Nixon, not George W. Bush. It doesn't take a critic to draw the obvious parallels, but yeah, there's a similarity or two. Whether Osama bin Laden was inspired by Sam Bicke, the real-life would-be assassin played by Penn, is open to question, but it has already been remarked by less tactful reporters that Bicke was "ahead of his time" in the jetliner-kamikaze department.
Even if you're not up on your '70s history, you probably remember that Nixon ended up dying of old age, so you might suspect that The Assassination of Richard Nixon isn't quite a suspense thriller. Rather, it's a sort of updated Death of a Salesman. Bicke sells office furniture for a living, but he isn't good at it; he loathes the fact that a successful salesman is compelled to stretch the truth in order to make more money. President Nixon, he decides, is the greatest salesman in the world: "He made a promise [to end the Vietnam war if elected], he didn't deliver, then he sold us the exact same promise all over again."
Bicke intends to prove that an honest salesman can succeed, and he knows just the thing. Together with his mechanic friend Bonny (Don Cheadle), he has a plan to start a door-to-door tire-sales business, using a gutted and refitted schoolbus to provide home service. The problem is, he doesn't have the patience to lay the groundwork, and things don't work out right. Meanwhile, his wife, Marie (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts), is preparing to file for divorce.
Tadpole screenwriter Niels Mueller makes his feature directorial debut here, and he handily proves his adeptness with actors. Penn's lead performance is the main attraction here, and it's a fine piece of work -- far superior to his showy Oscar-winning role last year. Mueller doesn't belabor the subtext of the story. When Bicke echoes the commander-in-chief's denial that he's a crook, there's no soundtrack sting or flashback to rub it in. Mueller just lets it sit there, counting on Penn to convey the point and the audience to pick up on it. That's good filmmaking.