Sean Penn key to the success of ‘Assassination of Richard Nixon’ |

Sean Penn key to the success of ‘Assassination of Richard Nixon’

Stewart Oksenhorn

Niels Mueller would have given Sam Bicke, the character at the center of his new film “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” a different name. He probably would have loved to do so to separate him from Travis Bickle, the deranged cabbie of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 urban classic, “Taxi Driver.” But Mueller had one hurdle he couldn’t overcome: history.”We had no choice,” he said of the character’s name, “because we were working with a true story. “They should change the name they used.”On the surface, even apart from the names, there’s not a whole lot of daylight between the anti-heroes at the center of “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” and “Taxi Driver.” Both of the protagonists are disturbed and possessed of a high-minded, but ultimately empty idealism. Both are driven by their inner and outer demons to plot to assassinate a politician.Mueller is hyper-aware of the similarities. When I slipped up and referred to Bicke as Bickle, we didn’t even have to name the earlier film to fall into a comparison of the two movies.But Mueller sees at least one key difference between his film and Scorsese’s. In “Taxi Driver,” Travis is a psychopathic loner from the outset; a violent course seems inevitable. In “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” Sam – played with intensity and humanity by Sean Penn – starts out with a strong thread of hope. He is about to take a job as a salesman of high-end office furniture; he is optimistic about salvaging his relationship with his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and their children. Mueller’s film thus becomes a portrait of Sam’s unraveling, and a violent end is not quite a foregone conclusion. In this, Mueller sees a greater parallel with another American classic – “Death of a Salesman” – than with “Taxi Driver.””For whatever reason, ‘Death of a Salesman’ resonates more with me,” said Mueller by phone from his home in Los Angeles. “[‘Death of a Salesman’ protagonist] Willy Loman talks about the American dream – that’s closer to Sam Bicke than Travis Bickle is. I love ‘Taxi Driver,’ but that’s about a guy who starts out a little psychotic.”Sam has his fingertips on the ledge. He’s like Willy, struggling to make his life happen, if he can only push himself up. And the milieu of sales, being a salesman – that was important.”In structure, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” stands on its own. Where “Taxi Driver” was driven in part by Travis’ internal conversation, Sam converses, via taped messages, with conductor Leonard Bernstein, who becomes Sam’s father confessor. Sam, who wishfully imagines himself the moral savior of the sales world, tells Bernstein, “Your music is pure and honest. That’s why I’ve chosen to talk to you.”Regardless of any similarities, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” – which is, in fact, based on a little-known 1974 attempt to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House – is a treat, largely due to the performance of Penn. Last year, Penn created two memorable disturbed characters: the ailing, depressed mathematician of “21 Grams,” and the grieving father in “Mystic River,” for which he earned an Academy Award. Penn makes another vivid portrayal of a man on the emotional fringes, but manages somehow to make Sam Bicke his own character.Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy finished the script for “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” in 1999. It took four years to raise the financing, but without the participation of Penn, who signed on as soon as he got the script, the film might never have been made.”I got really lucky,” Mueller said. “The first person who got the script was Sean. And I wouldn’t have made it without him.”Mueller also considers himself lucky to have seen Penn in action over the 38-day shoot. The whole cast – including Don Cheadle as Penn’s car mechanic friend Bonnie, Jack Thompson as Sam’s hardass boss and Michael Wincott as Sam’s pious brother Julius – is noteworthy. But Penn is hardly off the screen, and he gives the film its rounded look at humanity.”I love that idea of entering a world in film where you’re a fly on the wall and looking through someone’s eyes,” Mueller said. “With Sean’s performance, you get as close to that as you can. The scene between Sam and his older brother – that was like listening to a private conversation in someone’s living room that you shouldn’t be overhearing. There’s great pleasure in hearing actors who can make that so palatable.””The Assassination of Richard Nixon” shows in Aspen Filmfest’s Academy Screenings series today at 3 p.m. at Harris Hall. Also showing today are “The Chorus,” at 5:30 p.m.; and “Imaginary Heroes,” at 8:15 p.m.Academy Screenings continue with multiple daily features through Saturday, Jan. 1. For a complete schedule, go to Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is