Stop me if you've heard this before. Lonely, socially-awkward, idealistic white male, frustrated by the corruption of politics and the general degeneration of civil society, becomes increasingly withdrawn and entertains messianic delusions which ultimately lead to an outburst of shocking violence. Niels Mueller's The Assassination of Richard Nixon is the latest attempt to weld some originality to this hackneyed frame, and, for this viewer at least, the question must be asked: why bother? Perhaps Mueller fell under the spell of some Robert McKee-esque figure, and decided to search for originality within an established genre, rather than try something new. As Adaptation's Donald Kaufman might have put it, "My genre is the righteous vigilante thriller, what's yours?"
Mueller's lonely, socially-awkward white man is Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn), an all-round dud who in 1974 attempted to hijack a passenger jet with the intention of crashing it into the White House, specifically that part of the White House containing then-President Richard Nixon. Needless to say, Bicke was as unsuccessful a hijacker as he was husband, father and furniture salesman, but in Mueller's script Bicke is not so much a failure as he is failed, by a political/corporate culture based on lies and deceit. His is a righteous, if misplaced, anger, directed against the most prominent crook of all, the President of the United States.
Of course, it takes a while for Bicke to reach this point. When we first meet him, Bicke is down on his luck, a little shy and confused, but hardly the sort to tape a bowie knife to his ankle and start talking to himself in the mirror. He is separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and children, and there are hints at tension with his brother, but he is a sympathetic character: in Australia, he would be called a battler. Bicke's descent into madness begins when he is employed as a salesman in the office furniture business run by Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), a male so alpha that he is practically beta and gamma as well. Jones schools Bicke in the niceties of customer service (read: bullshit), pressing upon him the platitudes of Dale Carnegie as the key to success (surely enough to send anybody insane).
Jones is in many ways the film's central figure, the irresistable mass of chronic deceit towards which the poor, the weak, and the idealistic are drawn, whether they like it or not. He provides the link between the upper tier of government and the "little people" represented by Bicke. Morality, if not money, trickles down, the fibs of the great echoed by the masses of wannabe-greats. Nixon, Jones tells Bicke, is the greatest salesman in the country. Jones makes the comparison out of admiration, but all Bicke feels - towards Jones, Nixon, himself - is impotent loathing. What Nixon is selling is the American Dream, the very thing denied to Bicke because (or so he feels) he refuses to lie in order to attain it.
Mueller's argument has all the subtelty of Jack Thompson's beer gut, yet his actual point remains unclear. At one point, Bicke flips his wig and begins screaming at the televised image of Nixon, "It's all about money, Dick!" To which it seems fair to ask, what is all about money? Politics, business, society? Well, gee, I would never have thought of that. Money as the root of all evil - quite an insight! Indeed, the film's agenda appears separate to that of its protagonist, whose struggle is essentially existential, how to live truthfully in a world of compromise. It's not all about money: rather, money is symbolic of behavioural norms that Bicke finds repellent. Mueller garnishes this sub-Camusian waffle with pot-shots at the "American Dream", a concept which has had its seedy underbelly exposed so many times that doing so is about as iconoclastic as suggesting that the Pope might be a bit of a fuddy duddy when it comes to sex.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is "inspired by a true story", but truth, which the cliche holds is stranger than fiction, is no guarantee of profundity or meaning - indeed, of truth. Perhaps inevitably, Assassination invites unfavourable comparisons with Taxi Driver, a film which manages to capture an atmosphere of utter despair, a nightmare world corrupted by its own excesses, in which there are no easy answers. Taxi Driver is so thrillingly amoral, so blatantly ambiguous, that it lodges in your brain like some ugly, lurid question, seeking an answer that doesn't exist. Mueller's film, by contrast, takes a similar story and injects it with received insights, the illusion of depth. We have, simply, seen it all before. While it is obviously not Samuel Bicke's fault that the sad final years of his life have in the past three decades become a cinematic cliche, it is certainly Niels Mueller's fault that Bicke's story is reduced to yet another suspenseless stroll through the darker reaches of the American mind. From its try-hard shock title to its affected profundity, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is nothing but a big sell.