America, 1974. Samuel Bicke (Penn) is suffering a breakdown. Unable to lie to customers at work, he's a failure as a salesman as well as a failure as a husband. So he figures the only way to give his life significance is to target the greatest liar of the age - President Richard Nixon.
Well meaning comparisons can sometimes do more harm than good. Equating The Assassination Of Richard Nixon with one of the best plays ever written and some of the best movies ever made places a heavy burden of expectation upon this little film's shoulders - but they are valid reference points. This is no A-list star vehicle for Sean Penn; instead, it's a politically daring, psychologically troubling, based-on-fact American tragedy that took years to secure funding and only got made because of the artistic integrity of those involved.
Like a '70s version of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic play Death Of A Salesman, Sam Bicke is the average Joe, ground down by the broken promises of the American Dream. He had the perfect family, but it's been taken from him. His wife (Watts) won't entertain the thought of reconciliation and his children won't even pose properly for a photograph. When he's refused a bank loan for a tyre business he'd like to start with his best friend (Cheadle), Sam blames the bank's racism. We know, however, that it's really because he presents himself as such a desperate, unreliable figure.
As Sam's breakdown descends into paranoia and, in turn, into political scheming, the obvious cinematic touchstones are the key movies that were made around the time that this one is set - Taxi Driver, The Conversation, All The President's Men. The sweaty, untrustworthy face of Richard Nixon haunts Sam from nearby TV screens.
To Sam's decaying logic, this man becomes symbolic of the forces that have destroyed his life. A twice-elected yet deeply unpopular President conning the voters about a foreign war in order to further his private agenda? This film might look like the '70s and share that era's political concerns, but its relevance is here and now.
With a startling performance as the bleary Bicke, Penn also bridges cinematic past and present, winning audience sympathy for this pathetic, defective man against all odds. Arguably the best actor of his generation, he again proves he's a modern-day match for De Niro, Hackman, Hoffman and Keitel at their peak.
It may tread the same ground as the likes of Taxi Driver, and feel overfamiliar to some as a result, but it's great to see the courage of '70s Hollywood meeting the conviction of 21st-century indie cinema in this stark, bold drama.