Niels Mueller's dour directing debut uses a little-known footnote to America's epic history of political assassination — the 1974 attempt by Samuel Byck (renamed Bicke) to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the White House — as a prism through which to examine the slow strangling of one man's American dream. Who knows where Philadelphia salesman Bicke's (Sean Penn) slipping-down life began? But by 1973 his social awkwardness and rigid inability to enter into the one-hand-washes-the-other banter of business transactions have lost him countless jobs, friendships and, most devastatingly, his relationship with estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and their three children. He's thoroughly unsuited for a career in sales, but it's all he's ever done, first in the family tire business, run by the successful brother (Michael Wincott) who's washed his hands of Sam, and now the office-furniture showroom of glad-handing bully Jack Jones (Jack Thompson). Bicke's inflexibility and growing conviction that he's being persecuted for his moral integrity curdle into impotent anger and frustration, increasingly focused on President Richard Nixon. The president's slickly delivered political platitudes and ever-malleable values embody every tainted concession that, in Sam's increasingly dogmatic world view, has soured America's ideals and pulled the rug out from under decent, hardworking men like himself. Only Sam's pipe dreams of reconciling with Marie and opening a mobile tire sales and installation business with mechanic Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle) keep him going, and when those hopes run aground, his loosely tethered sanity slips its bonds and spirals into a whirlpool of paranoia and visions of revenge. Inspired by reports of a disgruntled private who stole an Army helicopter and briefly landed it on the south grounds of the White House, Sam begins recording a series of diatribes addressed to composer Leonard Bernstein, outlining his discontents and his intention to make them known on a world stage. Though Byck's futile protest went largely unremarked and was swiftly forgotten, his seething discontent festered in certain imaginations. It was surely more than coincidence that long before Stephen Sondheim penned Assassins, screenwriter Paul Schrader's overheated imagination hiccuped up Byck...Bickle when he needed a name for TAXI DRIVER's murderously disintegrating loner. Unfortunately, the trajectory of Mueller and co-screenwriter Kevin Kennedy's repetitive screenplay echoes TAXI DRIVER so closely as to invite unfavorable comparison with Martin Scorsese's benchmark chronicle of alienation, despite Penn's subtle, unsettling performance and a sharp sense of the brittle unhappiness that lurked beneath the syrupy sounds of the '70s.
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- Released: 2004
- Rating: R
- Review: Niels Mueller's dour directing debut uses a little-known footnote to America's epic history of political assassination — the 1974 attempt by Samuel Byck (renamed Bicke) to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into the White House — as a prism through… (more)