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Friday, January 21, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Penn sketches a lonely heart in "Assassination"

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review

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Don Cheadle has a small role in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon."

So, did that title get your attention? Niels Mueller's tightly focused drama has a delicate relationship with the truth: Its main character, Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn) is based on Samuel Byck, who in 1974 tried to hijack a plane in order to crash it into the White House and kill then-President Richard Nixon. The attempt was unsuccessful — he never got near the White House — and little is now known about the incident. Mueller and co-writer Kevin Kennedy have taken some facts from Byck's miserable life, changed some names, invented some characters, tweaked some events and created a vivid narrative — and yet another opportunity for Penn to show why he's one of the premiere actors of his generation.

While there's little suspense in the actual story — we all know that Nixon, movie title aside, was never assassinated — and a certain overfamiliarity to its central figure, "Assassination" works well as a character study of a desperate loner who's part Travis Bickle psycho, part Willy Loman dreamer and part a gentle man who melts when a friend's child hugs him goodnight. Separated from his wife (Naomi Watts), living in a grubby apartment and struggling for success at work, where his job selling office furniture is the latest in a string of failed endeavors, Sam has taken hard knocks from life. His voice is a quavery stammer; his face a constant apology.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 3 stars

"The Assassination of Richard Nixon," with Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Naomi Watts, Brad Henke, Nick Searcy. Directed by Niels Mueller, from a screenplay by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy. 95 minutes. Rated R for language and a scene of graphic violence. Varsity, Meridian.

Penn seems to visibly shrink inside his character as the scenes progress and more humiliations pile upon Sam. In a telephone conversation with his wife — who won't listen to his pleas for another chance — he looks like a very old man, wizened and small-voiced. At times, his Sam is almost unbearable to watch; his soft eyes are like those of a dog who's been kicked repeatedly but still holds out hope for affection. He poignantly awaits news of the small-business loan he needs to open a tire-repair service with his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). At the mailbox, waiting for the letter, he slouches miserably; a small figure alone in the world.

In a season chock-full of grim dramas, "Assassination" may be overlooked by audiences; its subject matter is both off-putting and familiar, and Penn, fresh from his "Mystic River" Oscar win, is easy to take for granted. But the movie is at times startling in its impact. Mueller has cast it carefully, with fine actors in small roles: Cheadle, Watts and especially Jack Thompson, who brings a cackling glee to the role of Sam's boss, a glad-handing believer in Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." And director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki ("Sleepy Hollow") gives it all a jittery, slightly muddy look, echoing Penn's nervous, uncertain energy in the movements of the camera and the indistinctness of the interiors.

The film is framed by voice-overs of Penn dictating a letter to composer Leonard Bernstein, Sam's idol. (This is factual; the real Byck sent rambling tapes to several public figures, including Bernstein.) "There are times," he says quietly, "when I have felt alone on this planet." He expresses his anger toward Nixon, "the greatest salesman of all," and his frustration with a society in which liars are rewarded and idealists can't succeed.

At one point, the film's music swells, recalling Bernstein's signature anthem "Somewhere," from "West Side Story," a song whose lyrics express hope for a better place, a better world. It could well be Sam's song, and Penn, through his performance, lets him sing it — a plea for understanding, before the darkness falls.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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