Phil on Film Index

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Review - The Assassination of Richard Nixon

The first thing that strikes you about The Assassination of Richard Nixon is the title. Assassination? Did I miss something? As we all know, the President of the title was never assassinated but, according to this movie, things could have turned out very differently for Tricky Dicky.
In 1974 a frustrated, disillusioned salesman named Samuel Byck planned to hijack a commercial plane and crash it into the White House, killing the president of the United States. The fact that this story is so little known gives some indication of how his plans turned out. First-time director Niels Mueller has taken Byck’s story as the basis for his debut film. He attempts to imagine what happened in the year previous to Byck’s botched hijack and tries to present his character as a victim of the American dream.

Mueller’s film is ‘inspired’ by this story rather than ‘based on’, and he has made a couple of changes to the facts. Here, the lead character is renamed Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) and we first see him standing dishevelled in his apartment, speaking into a tape recorder. He is recording his story, explaining why he has decided to assassinate the President. These tapes, which also form the voiceover for the film, are to be sent to his idol Leonard Bernstein because Bicke thinks the composer is the only man he trusts to tell his story to the world.

Mueller then jumps back to one year previously. Bicke works in a furniture store but he hasn’t really got the smooth patter which makes a successful salesman. More to the point, he can’t bring himself to lie in order to succeed as he hates the dishonesty which other people seem so comfortable with. His smooth-talking boss (Jack Thompson) gives him plenty of confidence-building tapes and books but Bicke doesn’t want to be like them, why can’t an honest man be a success? In fact Bicke has been a failure at pretty much all aspects of his life. His wife (Naomi Watts) took their children and left him a year ago but Sam still harbours ridiculous hopes of a reconciliation.

Understandably, Bicke is an unhappy man, and he needs someone to take his frustration out on. When his boss points at Nixon on a TV screen and says “He is the greatest salesman in the world, he sold the country on himself - twice”, the die is cast. Bicke sees the President as the root of all the country’s problems and decides that killing him is the only way he can make his life count.

So we have a lonely individual, shunned by the woman he loves, marginalized by society and drifting towards a political assassination; no wonder Mueller’s film reminds the viewer of Taxi Driver (even the name Sam Bicke recalls De Niro‘s Travis Bickle), a comparison which does it no favours. While Scorsese’s film was a genuinely disturbing look into a twisted state of mind, this effort simply has nothing new to say. It is certainly skilfully constructed and features quality performances across the board, but Mueller and his screenwriter Kevin Kennedy never manage to get to the heart of their main character’s malaise.

Instead of convincingly charting Bicke’s downward trajectory we have a collection of odd scenes which never really adds up to a whole. Many of these sequences are excellent, Bicke’s well-intentioned visit to the HQ of the Black Panthers and the enforced shaving of his moustache are highlights, but they don’t take us anywhere. Mueller has latched on to his obvious message of “America shits on the little guy” and simply repeats it ad nauseam.

Holding the movie together is a powerhouse performance from Sean Penn. He disappears inside the skin of Bicke and produces an edgy, detailed character study which is both scary and sympathetic, even when his behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre. It’s a remarkable display which surpasses his recent work in Mystic River and 21 Grams and makes even the most barren stretches of the film watchable. Don Cheadle offers excellent support as Bicke’s laid-back best friend and Naomi Watts is effective in her underused role.

But nothing manages to cohere and the flat direction and lack of subtlety is grating. When the climactic hijack finally arrives it is tense and extremely violent, but it’s also hysterical and seems to come in from a different movie. The story of Samuel Byck is a fascinating one but this ponderous, muddled film never delivers on the promise of its subject matter.

The sad footnote of the tale is the fact that Byck’s planned assassination, the one that would seal his place in history, has now been almost completely forgotten. And, despite the bravura central performance from Sean Penn, I can envisage a similar fate for The Assassination of Richard Nixon.