Grade: B-

It seems quite appropriate that Bicke, the surname of the lone loser who plots an act of political violence in Niels Mueller’s debut feature, is only a single letter removed from that of Travis Bickle, the character Robert DeNiro played to such memorable effect in “Taxi Driver.” But it’s even more appropriate that it be one fewer letter, because though “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” shares many plot points with Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece, it’s a distinctly lesser work. That doesn’t mean, however, that it isn’t worth seeing–not least because, like the earlier film, it boasts an extraordinary lead performance, if a very different one. Samuel Bicke might not–as the title of the picture reveals even to the least historically astute observer–succeed in his murderous venture, but Sean Penn makes him a memorable failure.

Bicke narrates his unhappy ruminations in a tape-recorded apologia for his actions that he sends off to his idol Leonard Bernstein as he’s about to highjack a plane with the goal of crashing it into the White House to kill the president. The year is 1974, and Bicke’s miseries, both personal and professional, have led him to the conclusion that the whole American system is corrupt, rigged in favor of the powerful, but that he can by a single act of violence show that the downtrodden little man can still make a huge difference; the beleaguered Nixon has become for him the symbol of everything that’s wrong with the world. We’re shown, in considerable detail, Bicke’s unhappy situation: he’s separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts), with whom he wants desperately–and hopelessly–to reconcile, and his children, and even the family dog, show little affection for him. Meanwhile he’s been forced to take a job for which, as a recessive, nervous sort of fellow, he’s totally unsuited: as an office furniture salesman, working under the watchful eye of a crude boss (Jack Thompson) who harangues him on the value of positive thinking and self-assurance. What Samuel really wants is to go into business with his mechanic pal Bonny (Don Cheadle): his rather wacky idea is to fit out an old school bus as a peripatetic tire store, fixing flats on the spot. But to stock the operation he steals from his estranged brother Julius (Michael Wincott), who inherited the family tire store, and his theft is discovered. As he stares divorce and financial ruin in the face, Bicke blames his shattered life–as well as the nation’s racial problems, which he suggests to the Black Panthers (in an weirdly amusing scene) could be solved by transforming their organization into a bi-racial group called the Zebras–on the malign forces that run the country, and sees his valedictory act as a perfect protest against them. But, as we know from history, his effort to go out with a bang is no more successful than anything else he’s tried.

The screenplay by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy is based on an incident that actually occurred at the Baltimore airport in February, 1974 (the real gunman’s name was actually Samuel Byck, and he actually did leave some tapes behind), but uses it as a springboard for a fairly fanciful construct whose downbeat character isn’t really balanced with much enlightenment. What we’re left with is a spare, gritty portrait of a pathetic man doomed to perpetual failure and humiliation; the mood, accentuated by Emmanuel Lubezki’s intentionally rough cinematography and Steven Stern’s melancholy score, is mostly grim but with shafts of mordant humor. Holding everything together is Penn, who manages to make the weak, floundering Bicke a compelling, oddly sympathetic character. It should be noted, however, that he doesn’t receive a great deal of support. Though Thompson, with his bellowing and smugness, certainly cuts a figure that might have come out of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” it never goes beyond caricature. Still, he fares better than Cheadle, Wincott and Watts, who are all surprisingly bland in underwritten parts.

If “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is basically a one-man show, though, Penn is able to hold one’s attention without much trouble all by himself. It’s a great performance in a film that, unfortunately, isn’t up to his standard–a character study that’s made small by the very limitations of its protagonist.