Unlike his fellow 70s malcontent (and semi-namesake) Travis Bickle, Sam isn't an outsider figure, even if he hits upon a similar course of direct action. He has a moderate, well-paying job (however incompetent he may personally be); he's versed enough in the arts to send his tapes of murderous confession to Leonard Bernstein (he admires the "purity" of Bernstein's work); he comes from a good family, brother to a Hasidic Jew (Michael Wincott) who runs the family tyre company, a detail too idiosyncratic not to be true. The suggestion the film makes would appear to be: if someone this relatively well-set in life can feel this disenfranchised, then what hope is there for the rest of us?
The film is part political comment - straining somewhat to equate the lies, lies and damn lies of the Nixon administration to those of the current incumbent - and, more successfully, part character study of a man in decline: Bicke cast as a pathetic Willy Loman or David Brent figure. The two parts don't always mesh, and more often than not threaten to cancel one another out. Holding it all together is an outstanding Penn, in one of those career choices that overturns everything you think you knew about a particular performer. There was a central problem of credibility with Penn's Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River, for even at his most crushed, one felt the actor could still out-think or, if required, out-punch any of his foes. It was typical of a film greatly confused as to what it was actually saying about vigilantism that it should employ a vigilante entirely without vulnerability, a man who could never be knocked down or out. (And thus a man who could do pretty much whatever Eastwood licensed, without fear of payback.)
Think of Penn, and one generally thinks of a towering pompadour that stands for all manner of swaggering thuggery. Here, though, one of the American cinema's cockiest performers has to act increasingly impotent. I particularly liked the way Mueller and Kennedy constantly scale down their protagonist's high hopes. After he barricades himself in the office of the man responsible for turning down his loan application, Bicke is effusive when the functionary in question agrees to accompany him for a cup of coffee. "In the cafeteria?," Bicke asks, hopeful of getting his tête-à-tête, his own private power lunch. "No," comes the deflating response. "There's a machine in the lobby." Most Penn performances wear any nasty streaks on their sleeve, but Bicke was always too nice for his own good: the kind of schmuck who'd trash a hallway in a fit of pique, then stoop to tidy up after his own strop.
Assassination is, in this respect, a film of tremendous integrity. Where a more mainstream production might have embellished its narrative arc to make Sam more sympathetic - a hero we could more clearly root for - Mueller, Kennedy and Penn let us see Bicke for whom he actually was, never shying away from putting their protagonist in situations where he is, by some distance, the most pitiful creature in the room. What keeps the film from operating as the grand tragedy it aims to be is that Bicke starts as a little man, and subsequently does nothing but shrink; at no point are we invited to look up to him, and therefore to take heed from his story.
Bicke wanted to be remembered for his actions - to prove that any one individual has the power to make a difference - yet the truth is he never got near his target, and had been all but forgotten about until Mueller's film went into production. What may be the most significant link between Bicke-Nixon's America, and Penn-Dubya's America, is the strain of self-defeatism one observes in the Left; most apparent, one might suggest, at this year's Oscar ceremony, where Penn sniped at host Chris Rock for taking a pop at Tim Robbins - all three figures ostensibly on the same political side, yet feeling a need to be holier, and more righteous, than everybody else around them. The American Right may only be united by lies, but it's a front more convincing than any opposition being put up right now.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.50pm.