The International Writers Magazine: DVD Review

The Assassination Of Richard Nixon
A Niels Mueller Film starring Sean Penn
Dan Schneider

I picked up a cheap used version of The Assassination Of Richard Nixon simply because I spent much of my youth listening to my dad yell at the 37th President during the years of the Watergate scandal, and figured that there might be some posthumous vicarious thrill that he could glean from my watching such a film with such a title.

To my surprise, the film was not a cheesy exploitative film, but a latter day attempt to reframe some of the very same issues that Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle dealt with in his 1976 film Taxi Driver, which ironically inspired a real life assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Thus, this 2004 film, directed by newby Niels Mueller, and written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, is the closing of a circle that began with the real like case of Sam Byck, a 44 year old man who in 1974 tried to hijack an airplane and fly it into the White House. The post-9/11 relevance of this act, and this film’s capture of it, is manifest. Not to mention that this tale of Bycke, renamed for the film’s purposes as Bicke (to make it more closely resemble Bickle, as rumor has it that Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader named his fictive character after hearing of the Byck hijack attempt.

Like Bickle, Bicke is a loser, although we get a bit more of his past, in the form of his cold and bitchy ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts as a brunet), three kids, and a dog. He is a failed office furniture salesman for a boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), who lauds Nixon as the ultimate salesman, for getting elected and re-elected to end the war in Vietnam, and by 1973, the film’s earliest revelation of Bicke, still conducting the war: ‘He made us a promise- he didn’t deliver. Then he sold us on the exact same promise and he got elected again. That’s believing in yourself.’ Sam used to sell tires for his brother, but left the business, claiming his brother wanted him to lie, something Sam cannot do, do well, nor wants to do. He has many ethical problems with just about any job, and has only one friend, Bonny Simmons, a black mechanic (Don Cheadle), who tolerates Bicke’s backhanded attempts at understanding prejudice. In short, Bicke is the little man who is a total cipher, crushed by American materialism, and feeling as powerless to stop the political machine as voters in Florida and Ohio in 2000 and 2004 did. This increases the film’s relevance beyond merely the 9/11 angle.

The acting is all first rate, as Penn seems to combine the best (or worst) aspects of two classic De Niro characters from Scorsese films - Bickle and The King Of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin in his best performance since 1999’s Sweet And Lowdown. Watts is almost unrecognizable as the brunet ex-wife, Cheadle is his usual solid self, and Thompson is perfectly despicable as a parasite-pusher of American consumerism. Michael Wincott, as Bicke’s orthodox Jewish brother Julius, makes his one scene memorable, as he confronts Sam over stealing from him, and getting his black friend in trouble, after Sam’s waited months for the approval of an SBA loan for a silly business idea, and is turned down. His brother coldly but reasonably disowns Sam, and the frustrations of the little man against the wall of indifferent materialism never has seemed higher on film, especially in the scenes where day after day Sam opens his mail slot to find nothing from the SBA, after being condescended to by a typically uncaring government drone.

The film also brilliantly juxtaposes his pushing of Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People and Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking books to make Bicke a better salesman, with Bicke’s own comical pursuit of political justice by tracking down the Black Panther Party leaders and urging them to allow whites to join, and rename it the party as The Zebras. Just as effective is the use of Bicke’s audio taping his confession to symphony conductor Leonard Bernstein, a man whose music and art he respects, and the effect is similar to that Travis Bickle’s constant writing of letters to his parents has. He starts off his contact with Bernstein by writing, ‘Mr. Bernstein: I have the utmost respect for you. Your music is both pure and honest and that is why I have chosen you to present the truth about me to the world.’ This after stating he considers himself a mere grain of sand on the beach of the world. Later, he states, ‘Certainty is the disease of kings,’ while pondering his plan’s possibility for success, even as he bolsters himself by saying, ‘They can rebuild the White House, but they will not forget me. A man is only remembered for his work.’ Like Taxi Driver, this film is a plethora of great quotes, and there are also numerous great moments, such as when Sam quits his job as an office furniture salesman, and screams at Nixon, whom he now blames for all that is wrong in the country, ‘It’s about money, Dick!’ over and again. Nixon has become his symbol and target for all who don’t care about honesty and decency.

As this is a shorter film, about an hour and a half, there are no digressions, like Taxi Driver’s to a Jodie Foster type character he tries to save, but the film works very well, especially in two key scenes. The first comes when his separated wife turns out to have filed for divorce without his knowledge, and he gets the divorce decree. He calls her up, speaks to her current lover, then her, she hangs up on him, and then he calls back but her phone’s off the hook. This is similar to a scene where Travis Bickle is trying to call the Cybill Shepherd character and apologize after bringing her to a porno film, and we only here his end of her rejection as the camera pans down a filthy hallway. The second key scene comes when, right before he kicks his assassination plan off (after hearing of a serviceman’s landing of a helicopter on the White House lawn, and being inspired), he goes to his ex-wife’s home, and shoots his dog, after saying it is his only friend, and wants to always be with it. Clearly, Bicke is severing his ties with his past, and knows he will die, but chooses to die as an ‘honorable man’, in his mind, even though he and the audience know he’s doomed to fail in even coming close to success in his hijacking/assassination attempt. Earlier shots of mass murderer/sniper Mark Essex on television only foreshadowed this failure.

That this subtle, well acted, and well written political film was lost, and appears on a bare bones DVD with no features, while Michael Moore’s mockumentary Fahrenheit 9/11 got Oscar buzz, only shows how dimwitted the American public is. The only slight negatives are the anachronistic use of modern airport technology, such as security equipment and moving walkway, and the last scene, which shows a still alive Sam playing with a toy plane- the attempted symbolism is muddy and superfluous. Overall, though, this is an excellent film. Early on, Sam moans that a man does not stop being a man when he’s at his job. Equally true is that neither does he stop being a man when he’s frustrated. Knowing the former does not prevent the latter, but it does allow a terrific film to be made in the interstice between the two.
© Dan Schneider,
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