True story: six months before Richard Nixon resigned, in 1974, screw-up husband, father and salesman Samuel Byck tried to take him out, in a prescient 9/11 scenario, by hijacking a jet and crashing it into the White House.
Byck failed but died trying. This prototypical little-guy loser felt betrayed by his family, his job and his country. He viewed Tricky Dick as the symbol of his torment. First-time director and co-writer Niels Mueller saw Byck (called Bicke to allow for fictional finagling) as a means to investigate the psychological underpinings of the American dreamer betrayed. It’s a fierce and noble quest that Mueller doesn’t quite pull off.
No matter. The reliably brilliant Sean Penn does. Penn gets the look right (the mustache, the polyester suits) and the halting speech. But the beauty of this astonishing performance, a worthy follow-up to his Oscar role in Mystic River, is the way Penn finds the loneliness that isolates Bicke from his waitress wife (Naomi Watts), his friend (Don Cheadle), his boss (Jack Thompson), his brother (a superb Michael Wincott) and, ultimately, the world. It isn’t easy to watch Bicke deteriorate into madness — this riveting film qualifies as the anti-crowd-pleaser — but Penn makes it unthinkable to turn away.