The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)


(director/writer: Niels Mueller; screenwriter: Kevin Kennedy; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editor: Jay Lash Cassidy; cast: Sean Penn (Samuel Bicke), Don Cheadle (Bonny Simmons), Jack Thompson (Jack Jones), Naomi Watts (Marie Bicke), Brad Henke (Martin Jones), Michael Wincott (Julius Bicke), Mykelti Williamson (Harold); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Alfonso Cuarn/Jorge Vergara; ThinkFilm; 2004)

“Gets stuck using as its messenger such a wacko.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Niels Mueller the first-time writer-director presents “Assassination,” which was inspired by the true story that took place six months before Richard Nixon resigned on February 22, 1974. That’s when a wacko high-school drop-out, failed family man and failed salesman named Samuel Byck (the last name spelling is changed to Bicke for the fictionalized film) hijacked a passenger jet from the Baltimore airport and was stopped before he crashed it into the White House in his aim to take out President Nixon. The psychological drama succeeds mostly in capturing the plight of the “little man” who has been currently left out of the American Dream equation that those from all walks of life from past generations were able to more easily realize. But it fails in its efforts to be taken more seriously, as it gets stuck using as its messenger such a wacko and comes up with little more to say than what isn’t already obvious. Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) is the sincere idealist, a loony figure who ultimately sends a twisted message that even though he offers a legitimate grievance for his actions his protest still leads to an insanely violent act.

A disgruntled Sam Bicke, a reminder of the Travis Bickle psycho character in Taxi Driver, who has been fired by his stable business tire store owner brother Julius for being a lousy tire salesman who undersold his product and has also been dumped by his hard-working cocktail waitress wife Marie (Naomi Watts) because he’s a sad-sack, now tries to get his life back together with his new job as a salesman of office furniture. But his overbearing bully boss Jack Jones (Jack Thompson) preaches that lying and believing those lies makes for being a great salesman, as he lays on the nebbish Sam the Dale Carnegie approach to selling oneself and plies him with self-help books ‘on believing in yourself’ as he shows Sam that the art of telling a good lie is the principle behind any good salesman.

The film opens in 1974 two weeks before the hijacking incident and shows Sam’s increasingly deteriorating mind as he opens up his heart to explain his motivations for being so angry with the corrupt system. Sam has the bright idea of sending his recorded-tape rantings to his idol, music composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein, to rationalize his mission to eliminate Nixon as the country’s chief salesman and thereby biggest liar. We are told, he chooses Bernstein because his music is pure and honest. Sam points out how lies have become pervasive in American society and accepted as the usual way of doing business, something he can’t accept. The dejected Sam reminds Bernstein of what his boss told him, that Nixon was the world’s greatest salesman because he made two great sales even though he never delivered on his promise. In the 1968 campaign he promised ‘to end the war’ but instead increased it. Running in 1972, he again promised ‘to end the war’ and was so much believed by the public that he won by a landslide (it’s not difficult to relate that with the lies of George W. Bush’s two successful presidential campaigns).

The film does a nice job recreating the 1974 mood of unrest by pointing out Indian and Black Panther protests, and Walter Cronkite as the most trusted spokesman for the masses. In its more fictionalized look at Sam it runs into some trouble, as it shows the unstable Sam in an unconvincing way getting his stable best friend played by Don Cheadle to go along with his bogus business scheme to sell tires in the ghetto.

Sean Penn does a great job in portraying his zany character as far as acting techniques go. The film, though it never fully succeeds in being great drama or telling us much about Sam that isn’t surface psychology stuff, for the most part nails down that era’s all-around corruption like many of those great films from the 1970s–Hollywood’s reputed golden age of films. One such film was Coppola’s 1974 The Conversation, a much better study of that period’s debased society because it displays a truer sense of urgency and leaves a pointed message that this film was never able to deliver through its meandering character study.