Sam Bicke sells office furniture, and he sells it very badly. Timid and halting, he can't get a guy to buy a sporty brown Naugahyde swivel chair. His boss seals the deal in under a minute.
So later, at a bar, the boss tells Sam (Sean Penn) that he has to believe in himself, and he points to America's current president, Richard Nixon, up there on the television: In '68, Nixon promised to end the war but only got us in deeper. Then, in '72, he won a landslide re-election with the same promise. "That's a salesman," says the boss. "He made a promise, he didn't deliver, and then he sold us the exact same promise."
Thus begins The Assassination of Richard Nixon, writer/director Niels Mueller's inspired-by-a-true story of a man who, in 1974, may have formulated plans to do just that. How "true" this all is I don't know, nor do I care: Assassination is compelling sociology about the sinister banality of our American Ideal. Work hard, we're told. Think positive, and believe in your own manifest destiny. After his pep talk, Sam tranquilly comes to see himself as "a grain of sand on the beach they call America," and he gradually decides to prove that "the least grain of sand has in him the power to destroy."
And so, emotionally adrift and lonely, hence the perfect American assassin, Sam distorts the reasonably political into the dangerously personal. He wants to start his own business, so he's not without imagination and drive. He tries to join the Black Panthers because "I'm in the same boat." An understandably surly Panther tells him, "You own the boat," then listens politely to his plea. He makes tapes that explain his vision, and he sends them to Leonard Bernstein, whose music he cherishes. "What happens, Mr. Bernstein, to the land of plenty," he asks, "when there's plenty for the few and little for the plenty?"
Mueller, who wrote the agreeable little wet dream Tadpole, uses this weird footnote from the '70s to construct a leisurely drama that quietly asks us to confront the tragic bullshit that festers beneath our unquestioned values and beliefs, and what happens when they turn on us. He sprinkles his movie with ironic little details that never interrupt the flow of its desolate reality, and his hard climax is swiftly brutal. History -- Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon, Wounded Knee -- appears only on TV, like a ubiquitous, disconnected chorus goading Sam to action.
Penn sketches Sam with a plaintive dislocation: He can barely even hug his beloved estranged wife (Naomi Watts), and his auto-mechanic pal and would-be business partner (Don Cheadle) just doesn't get his emerging socialism. Penn and Cheadle are notoriously good bombastic actors working here in an elegantly low key, and Watts is unrecognizable as Sam's increasingly prickly waitress/ex. This is smart, challenging cinema -- a small castle built from a forgotten grain of sand.