In this neo-noir, Sean Penn plays a man, Samuel Bicke, who attempts to commandeer an airplane before takeoff. He wants to crash it into the White House and kill Richard Nixon and bring down the system that he sees oppressing him and others. He wants to show that the powerless have power.
This is really an impressive film. I expected high-caliber performances because the main actors are all excellent (Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, and Jack Thompson). I didn't expect such a well-rounded, insightful, hard-hitting and polished screenplay.
The story is based on a true incident. The real-life Samuel Byck did what is shown in the last 15 minutes of the film. The film focuses on Bicke's life and thinking prior to his attempted hijacking. It doesn't mention that Bicke's name was known to the Secret Service for several years and it doesn't show several earlier incidents that brought him to their attention. Although the film does a thorough job showing Bicke's frustrations with the American dream, this lapse of not showing the ineptitude of the Secret Service is a missed opportunity.
Creating a complete and balanced portrait of Bicke had to pose a great challenge to the writers. Bicke is shown as a complex man. Several strands intermingle and go into his makeup, together resulting in his extraordinary behavior. To have focused on any one of these to the exclusion of the others would have undermined the story and our understanding, even if fictionalized, of this man. The great strength of the script and the movie is in showing a number of incidents in his life, showing his character and its failings, showing the precarious state of his mind and thought, and showing how he attempted to rationalize his situation and find a meaning in the blows that life was dealing him and his own responsibility. Philosophy is ultimately a personal construction and matter. The story had to walk a fine line between making his behavior determined by outside forces or inner demons and allowing scope for his own decisions.
Ultimately, the Sean Penn character was alone. He could not connect with his brother, his friend Don Cheadle, the Black Panthers, his ex-wife Naomi Watts, a government small loan officer, or with his boss Jack Thompson. Their advice and counsel only went so far and no further. He could not connect through a "big idea" or a shared value, such as the American Dream. He could only see its emptiness and hypocrisy behind it. He couldn't connect to political leaders making empty statements and denying the importance of money and advantages that he lacked. He connected with his children, but soon a divorce interrupted that. In the end, he could only attempt to connect normally with the world through writing to Leonard Bernstein. He could only connect abnormally through a desperate act.