Sean Penn may very well be the man of all seasons in Hollywood. He can play pot-smoking dudes, brothers of game-entranced businessmen, gay politicians, and here, a man who falls into insanity when his life falls to pieces. "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is not a great film, but it really captures certain obscure details that could have slipped under the radar in a more mainstream film. There are many shots of Penn, contemplating the transformation of the character and his actions, and to me that made a big difference. Penn plays Sam Bicke, a office supply salesman who is very much mistreated in his life. He's separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts), he has 3 children and a dog, and a tire-selling brother (Michael Wincott) that he's lost a lot of love with over the years. He can only talk to Leonard Bernstein, his favorite musician, a man who reveals over the course of the film the inside thoughts of Bicke. Bicke is an avid hater of Nixon, and he gets the idea from a past attempt to fly a helicopter into the White House. His friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) is being racially mistreated, and he is very aware of this. He at one point charges about 500 of his brother's tires to this man because of his injustices. The film details for the most part his gradual, disturbing transformation from family man to sleepy assassin. With this film, Penn proves evermore that he's a character actor. He can convince you he's a killer, and he unleashes a dark side in this. Niels Mueller, the director, coaxes it out of him in such a way where it borders both on containment and sheer venom. This is one of Penn's great performances, an underrated one at that. The movie has a score of flaws: Watts, Cheadle, and the rest of the cast pale in comparison to Penn's astounding work. Their support is no short of average here. The camerawork is masterful, though, and the portrayal of Penn is just as impressive. As I said, "Nixon" is not a virtuoso achievement, it's a vehicle for Penn's acting, and a good one at that. B+
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is rated R for language and a scene of graphic violence. It is altogether harrowing. Not for most children.