In 1974, a Baltimore man named Sam Byck attempted to hijack an airliner so he could crash it into the White House and incinerate President Nixon, and he sent audiotapes to Leonard Bernstein detailing his motives. The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) is “inspired” by this historical footnote. In it, Sean Penn plays the role of Sam Bicke, a pathetic man who is desperately out-of-place in 1974 America.
In simplistic terms, Bicke is a total “loser.” He’s been separated from his wife (Naomi Watts) and three children for almost two years but entertains pitiful delusions of reconciliation. He has one friend, a black auto mechanic (Don Cheadle). He flees from one job to another, ending up selling office furniture for an unctuous boss who gives him self-help books on tape and a tape recorder-player with which to boost his ego, fire up his motivation, and master the pushy art of friendly persuasion. But Sam doesn’t have the drive to study the tapes in a serious way, the social skills to translate their theory into effective practice, or the temperament to persuade people to buy things they don’t really want for prices they don’t want to pay.
Not only that, but he is too busy trying to force himself back on his wife who wants nothing more to do with him than to collect his child support checks to help her meet the expenses of raising the children and maintaining the house while she moves on with her life; too busy struggling to get a loan to start up an ill-conceived business with his friend to sell and install tires out of a bright red bus that doesn’t even run; and too busy railing against the corrupt unfairness of a social system that rewards people with obscene amounts of wealth and power for lying, conniving, and manipulating while people of integrity and decency flounder and fail to find success or happiness.
As Bicke’s failures mount, he becomes increasingly unhinged, quitting his job, stealing from his brother, making an abortive attempt to kill his ex-boss, and then seizing upon an insane plan to assassinate President Nixon and destroy the White House in a blaze of glorious triumph of the little man over the iconic symbols of oppressive and immoral wealth and power. As he explains in his rambling tape to Leonard Bernstein, he’s going to demonstrate that even the smallest grain of sand on the vast beach that is the American and world populace can have a mighty impact on everyone.
Sean Penn has to be one of the finest actors on film, and I believe that this film features one of his greatest performances. In fact, I think it’s stunning. I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job of capturing Bicke’s alienation from society; his bumbling social ineptitude and incessant self-preoccupation; his maddeningly clueless pursuit of the impossible; his crushing despair as he sees his marriage, his friendship, his career aspirations, his relationship with his brother, and his entire life inexorably disintegrate; and his irreversible plunge into the black depths of tragedy.
Some have criticized the film for being a rip-off of Taxi Driver. I may be in a distinct minority, but I actually found Penn’s Sam Bicke to be a more believable and compelling character than DeNiro’s Travis Bickle, and Assassination a more involving study of alienation and decline into madness than Taxi Driver.
Others have complained that The Assassination of Richard Nixon is an unmitigated and unrelenting downer with no redeeming message or point. I admit that I have probably never squirmed with as much discomfort or felt such unremitting bleakness while watching a film as I did while watching this one. My wife kept saying with exasperation, “He’s stupid . . . a stupid man!”
Yes, I believe that he was stupid in terms of social or emotional intelligence, and not terribly bright intellectually or strong in any other way, and that this unfortunate constellation of inadequacies crumbled into madness under the demands and pressures of everyday life. I believe that this was the “point” of the movie and that it was portrayed so masterfully that it was all the point there needed to be. If one watches this film with an open and compassionate mind and heart instead of being clouded by expectations of a “good time” or by judgmental contempt for the protagonist, one can gain deep and valuable insight into the anatomy of alienation, despair, and desperation to “be somebody” in a world that is oblivious to your existence when it isn’t being contemptuous of it.
Sam Bicke is so pathetic that it’s hard to sympathize with him when he constantly whines about deceit and injustice at work and in life, doggedly pursues his estranged wife who obviously has no interest in reconciliation, and pushes awkwardly and overbearingly for a business loan that hasn’t an iota’s chance of being approved. But there are many people in this world who are like Sam Bicke to some degree or other, and they are human beings who hope and dream until they feel so defeated and hopeless that they live out their sad lives in lonely, lingering obscurity, or eat, drink, or drug themselves to quicker death, or destroy themselves and sometimes others in sudden, ugly acts of shocking violence.
I believe that it is incumbent on us as individuals and as a society to minimize this suffering and destruction by taking more of an interest in the Sam Bicke’s of our world, showing them that we do care about them, providing them a niche in society where they can feel nurtured, valued, and loved, and making expert help available to them and steering them toward it when they need it.
I had never even heard of The Assassination of Richard Nixon until recently, but as soon as I did hear of it, I just had to see it. I’m glad I did. Bearing in mind that I’m a pretty tough grader, I give it an A-.