As “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” opens, we see would-be assassin Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) dictating a letter to composer Leonard Bernstein. By the end of the film we realize that we are effectively in Bernstein’s shoes, faced with the question of whether Bicke’s background can in any way justify his horrible actions. Not a question to be taken lightly, the entire film is dark and also very moving. A powerful and empathetic performance by Penn as Bicke is complemented by first-time director Niels Mueller’s subliminally effective style, transforming Bicke from a crazy man on nightly news into a serious consequence of hypocrisy in modern society.

Penn would seem an appropriate choice for Bicke since both are given to occasional outbursts, both physical and verbal. But a viewing of the movie proves that there is much more to Penn’s performance than that. Indeed, the movie draws much of its power from his skillful portrayal of the common man. In the film, Bicke is a recently divorced furniture salesman struggling to keep his job. His boss tries in vain to teach him the secrets of success