The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Theatrical release poster
Directed byNiels Mueller
Written byNiels Mueller
Kevin Kennedy
Produced byAlfonso Cuarón
Jorge Vergara
CinematographyEmmanuel Lubezki
Edited byJay Cassidy
Music bySteven M. Stern
Anhelo Productions
Appian Way
Esperanto Filmoj
Distributed byThinkFilm
Release dates
  • May 17, 2004 (2004-05-17) (Cannes)
  • December 29, 2004 (2004-12-29) (United States)
Running time
95 minutes
CountriesUnited States
Budget$4.6 million[1]
Box office$4.4 million[2]

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a 2004 American drama film directed by Niels Mueller and starring Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson and Naomi Watts. It is based on the story of would-be assassin Samuel Byck, who plotted to kill Richard Nixon in 1974. It was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.[3] The last name of the main character was changed to Bicke.[4]


In 1973, 43-year-old Philadelphia resident Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) is a down on his luck salesman who desperately wishes to reconcile with his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts). A constant moralizer, he states that he stopped working at the tire shop owned by his brother Julius (Michael Wincott) because he would lie to his customers. Believing that society's discrimination affects poor white people just as much as it does blacks, he attempts to join the Black Panthers. His dream is to own his own mobile tire sales business in partnership with his best friend, African-American mechanic Bonny (Don Cheadle).

He finds employment at an office furniture retail business, where his new boss Jack (Jack Thompson) gives him patronizing advice, while his awkwardness makes him a poor salesman. Jack describes US president Richard Nixon as the greatest salesman in history, because his election promise in 1968 was to exit the Vietnam War, and four years later he again coasted to win an easy re-election in 1972 on the promise of ending the same war.

Bicke becomes increasingly disillusioned with his status in society. He applies for a government loan to set up the business with Bonny, and he frantically waits for an answer in the mail. His sales figures continue to deteriorate, and Jack, who only hires married salesmen, begins to suspect Sam lied about his marriage. In fact, Marie keeps rebutting all of Sam's awkward attempts at reconciling, and later sends him a divorce decree, leaving him weeping in despair. Shortly afterwards, he deliberately destroys a sale by turning up the television volume in the showroom as Jack negotiates with a prospective customer and thereafter quits his job. While watching Nixon giving a speech on TV during the Watergate scandal, he screams at him, "It's about money, Dick!" With the loan still not finalized, he breaks into his brother's tire sales business to make a large order that will be delivered to Bonny. Ultimately, the loan is rejected, his rent is past due, and his brother Julius reveals he had to bail out Bonny, who was arrested for receiving stolen goods, and is now done entirely with his deadbeat, hypocritical brother.

A broken Sam begins obsessing more and more about Nixon. One night, after watching a news story about a helicopter pilot who did a fly-by around the White House and was arrested, he begins to formulate a plan to hijack a passenger airliner and crash it into the White House. In the two weeks leading to his action, he records a message detailing his intentions and state of mind and addressed to Leonard Bernstein, whom he greatly admires.

Sam liquidates his bank account, steals Bonny's gun, and heads to a restaurant where Jack is dining. He aims the gun at Jack under the table, but cannot pull the trigger and flees. He goes to his and Marie's old house and sleeps in the empty home, then shoots and kills the family dog. The next morning, he drives to the Baltimore–Washington International Airport with the gun concealed against his leg and a suitcase full of gasoline. After mailing his confession to Bernstein, he plans to wait in line to board a flight, but seeing the security procedures are more thorough than expected, he panics and rushes on board, shooting a cop as he goes.

Once on board he haphazardly shoots one pilot in the head and the other in the shoulder, then finds a passenger to act as co-pilot. However, he is shot through a window by an intervening policeman, but commits suicide before he could be killed or arrested. The day's events are shown on TV, though neither Bonny nor Marie appear to react to the mention of Sam's name.



On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, 68% of 131 critics' reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.6/10. The website's consensus reads: "The Assassination of Richard Nixon struggles to convey deeper meaning, but a fascinating true story and compelling Sean Penn performance are worthy compensations."[5] Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 63 out of 100, based on 38 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews.[6]

Empire gave the film four stars out of five, stating, "it's great to see the courage of '70s Hollywood meeting the conviction of 21st-century indie cinema in this stark, bold drama."[7]

Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars and wrote, "Does the film have a message? I don't think it wants one. It is about the journey of a man going mad. A film can simply be a character study, as this one is. That is sufficient. A message might seem trundled in and gratuitous."[4]

Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post wrote: "It grinds on without mercy. You're in the cross hairs. There is no escape. Where is that Secret Service when you need it?"[8]

In popular culture

In 2018, in a discussion of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, Donald Clarke wrote in The Irish Times that "[t]he most interesting cinematic analysis of any character featured in Assassins may, however, be Niels Mueller’s fascinating, underappreciated The Assassination of Richard Nixon from 2004."[9]

See also


  1. ^ "The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) - Financial Information". The Numbers.
  2. ^ "The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 6, 2017.
  3. ^ "The Assassination of Richard Nixon". Cannes Festival. Retrieved November 30, 2009.
  4. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (January 13, 2005). "'Nixon' soars on another riveting performance by Penn". Retrieved December 12, 2023.
  5. ^ "The Assassination of Richard Nixon". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 12, 2023.
  6. ^ "The Assassination of Richard Nixon". Metacritic. Retrieved December 12, 2023.
  7. ^ "Empire's The Assassination Of Richard Nixon Movie Review". Empire. January 2000. Retrieved September 13, 2013.
  8. ^ Stephen Hunter (2005). "Overkill With Sean Penn". The Washington Post.
  9. ^ "A shortcut to immortality: kill the president". The Irish Times. Retrieved April 8, 2018.