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    The Assassination of Richard Nixon

    Tricky Byck

    "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" plays with the story of Samuel Byck, whose dark obsessions cast light on the onetime president's own unbalanced behavior.


    So if you meet me
    have some courtesy
    have some sympathy, and some taste
    Use all your well-learned politesse
    Or I'll lay your soul to waste

                        — "Sympathy for the Devil"

    Directed by: Niels Mueller.
    Written by: Kevin Kennedy, Niels Mueller.
    Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad Henke .
    Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki.
    Edited by: Jay Lash Cassidy.

    Related links: Official site
    A modest film with large ambitions and big names, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" marks the directorial debut of UCLA film-school grad Niels Mueller. It's a big leap from "Tadpole," the 2002 coming-of-age comedy he and Heather McGowan co-wrote with director Gary Winick, for whom he also served as editor on "Sweet Nothing" (1995). Producers Alfonso Cuaron and Jorge Vergaro, and a cadre of executive producers including Alexander Payne and Leonardo DiCaprio, put their collective muscle behind this project, which star Sean Penn stayed committed to throughout its long development. With heavy-hitters like these rallying around a low-budget American indie production and first-time director, there's a sense of something important afoot.

    The Assassination of Richard Nixon  
    The title also intrigues; we all know that Nixon was not assassinated, but resigned in disgrace over Watergate. What many do not remember (if they even ever knew) was that in 1974 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, authorities foiled a hijacking attempt by a manic-depressive, unemployed salesman named Samuel Byck, who hoped to fly a jet into the White House to kill the president and his staff. Since the plane never got off the ground, the danger was contained and the story quickly lost amid the bigger headlines. Byck later shared a chapter with Lee Harvey Oswald in James W. Clarke's 1982 history "American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics," and resurfaced as a character in Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical "Assassins," which was revived on Broadway early in 2004. Until this film, that pretty much describes the extent of notoriety for an obscure man who, to settle scores and earn respect, sought a very public death.

    What with the ongoing vogue for reality-based entertainment, a little-known historical anecdote like this makes a catchy premise for a screenplay — which presumably would also be an attractive challenge to the lead actor, because he's in every scene. Changing the central character's name from "Byck" to "Bicke" is only one of the cosmetic changes Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy have made to tailor this vehicle for Penn. The real Byck was a former mental patient 60-70 pounds overweight, who picketed the White House dressed in a Santa suit, identified with terrorists, and was known to the FBI for making threats. The main facts of his life the movie retains: his inability to keep a job, his lack of entrepreneurial success, his estrangement from his wife and family, and his paranoid tendency to deflect blame for his part in these setbacks onto outside forces. Despite all this — and because of Sean Penn's chameleon-like artistry — Sam Bicke emerges a sympathetic character.

    "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" builds its dramatic impact by showing how one man gradually becomes unhinged — what brings him to the state where we first see him, taping fevered messages explaining himself to Leonard Bernstein, of all people, a celebrity with whom Bicke had no prior contact. Flash back a year earlier, to a point where his luck appears to be turning for the better; he has a new job as junior salesman in a furniture store. Getting back on his feet financially, Bicke hopes to win back his wife ("21 Grams co-star Naomi Watts) and kids, and prove to his brother (Michael Wincott), a successful tire salesman who once employed him, that things will be different now.

      The Assassination of Richard Nixon
    The problem is that things don't need to change so much as Sam needs to change. Thin-skinned, fair-minded and reticent, he's ill equipped for sales, and intimidated by the boisterous, aggressive style of his boss Jack (Jack Thompson). After Jack lauds Nixon because he won election both times by selling 200 million Americans the same lie twice — i.e., a promise to end the war in Vietnam — Sam begins equating the businessman's tricks of the retail trade with the duplicity of Tricky Dick. Likewise, the patient, if leery, official from the regional branch of the Small Business Administration whom Sam petitions for a start-up loan (he wants to sell wheels on wheels, a mobile tire store on a bus) comes to embody, in Bicke's mind, the ruthlessness and indifference at the heart of capitalism.

    The micro becomes the macro in Sam's cosmic view, where everything comes down to injustice. He doesn't get respect, he feels, because he doesn't buy into the American dream that's now tarnished by the government, and he rationalizes his failures as the plight of an underdog fighting corruption on a massive scale. African-Americans, the most obvious target of social injustice, are the people with whom he most identifies. In his encounters with blacks Sam is well intentioned, if still a fuzzy thinker; when he drops in at local Black Panthers party headquarters to make a donation, he suggests they change their name to "Zebras," to be more racially inclusive. His only friend is a mechanic named Bonny (Don Cheadle), but as Sam's finances deteriorate he will betray Bonny's trust by involving him in larceny and by stealing his gun.

    Penn makes this loose cannon sympathetic by the earnestness of Sam's pleas with his wife, his abjection in front of his brother, his child-like incomprehension that the truth of his half-baked theories is not self-evident to others. The camera is in close on him through much of the picture, and we see every emotion play across the face of a man trying to get a grip, unaware that his ideals are caving as his behavior becomes more erratic and dishonest. But why present such a view of a would-be assassin? Why pull the audience through such hoops, building identification with Bicke, so that we cringe at his every misstep?

    Part of the answer is that most audiences won't be familiar with the real Samuel Byck's history, so when Sam Bicke's story takes a (to them) unforeseen turn, the film winds up working like a thriller. Part of the answer is that the script offers a terrific opportunity for Penn to display his inexhaustible inventiveness. But maybe another reason can be divined in the film's closing sequence. Samuel Byck ended his life by suicide, but that's not what happens to Bicke. As heinous as Bicke's actions are, he doesn't resort to that way out. Instead, his fate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; the Man was out to get him, after all.

    DECEMBER 31, 2004

    Reader comments on The Assassination of Richard Nixon:

  • Wonderful   from tom griffin, Feb 11, 2010

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