Penn's role is one of the best of 2004.
"My name is Sam Bicke, and I consider myself a grain of sand." So says the protagonist (Sean Penn) of "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" into a tape recorder in a 1970's also peopled by Travis Bickle, another assassin with no normal connection to the world. But Robert De Niro's character in Taxi Driver seems almost sociable by comparison with Penn's Bicke, who's lost his family, job, and in the end, his mind. A grain of sand is an appropriate metaphor for this lost human being.
This film won't break any records at the box office (If it lasts more than two weeks in my town, I'd be surprised) although Penn's introverted, tortured role is one of the best of 2004 (and one of the most ignored). Sam (Remember Penn in "I am Sam"?) is so detached, so deeply self conscious and inept that he compels not an iota of identification from the viewer, annoyance at his sniveling attitude telegraphing disaster with each episode in his dreary life.
The center of Sam's rage is Nixon's winning the White House twice on the same lie of a promise to get America out of Vietnam: "He made us a promise -- he didn't deliver. Then he sold us on the exact same promise and he got elected again." For all of Sam's off-center attitudes, the small truth and justifiable outrage at notorious liar Nixon make Sam believable but unsympathetic in this gloomy film.
Brunette Naomi Watts as his sweet, long-suffering, and currently divorcing wife is a pleasure to watch. Jack Thompson as Sam's bluff boss represents the world outside of Sam trying to integrate him into the machinations of daily survival. But the film belongs to Penn, who, with his Oscar from Mystic River, is in the first rank with Pacino, Streep, Swank, Hoffman, De Niro, and Depp. Penn's performance is so good here the audience will find Sam unlikable at every level.
"Assassination" premiered as part of the Un Certain Regard program at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, probably one of the only recognitions given that its hero lacks the qualities Aristotle prescribed for the tragic hero: greatness and the ability to instill pity in the audience.
Yes, Richard Nixon is not assassinated, just one more failure for Sam Bicke.