Assassination of Richard Nixon, The: Neils Mueller’s Expose, Starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts

Lacking a clear point of view, “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is a bleak but slight character study of a salesman who descended into madness and hell just in order to prove to himself that he is “somebody.”
The Assassination of Richard Nixon
The Assassination of Richard Nixon poster.JPG

Theatrical release poster

 

If it were not for the A-list cast, headed by Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, “Assassination of Nixon” would have been dismissed as a pretentious film reaching higher than its grasp. The inevitable comparisons to Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece “Taxi Driver” make Neils Mueller’s expose a pale and toothless imitation. The intent to ground the film in the tradition of Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman,” just because its hero is a salesman, also fails to elevate the muddled film above mediocrity.

Like “Taxi Driver,” “Assassination of Nixon” is set in the 1970s, in February 1974 to be precise, a time of political unrest. However, the least the filmmakers could do is come up with a different name for their protagonist, Bicke, which sounds too much like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), the disturbed violence-prone hero of “Taxi Driver.”

A quintessentially American figure, Samuel J. Bicke (Penn) is a 44-year-old man who wants to believe in the American Dream. However, at every turn, his faith in himself and in the surrounding world is undermined. Bicke is separated from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), who refuses to consider reconciliation, and he’s estranged from his brother Julius (Michael Wincott), a businessman whose success serves as a reminder of Bicke’s professional failures.

With his personal life in disarray, Bicke struggles to hold onto yet another job for which he is fundamentally unfit. We are led to believe that he is an idealist who detests lying, though his profession, a salesman in an office supply company, calls for insincerity, opportunism, and deceit.

The only bright spot in Bicke’s life is his dream of opening a tire repair service with his auto mechanic friend, Bonny (Don Cheadle). You may recall that in “Boogie Nights,” Cheadle himself dreams of opening his own stereo store. The business proposal requires a bank loan, which makes Bicke nervous, fearing his application will be denied.

As his anxiety mounts, Bicke begins to fall apart–he becomes paranoid. Vulnerable and insecure, all he sees is injustice and hypocrisy. He thinks it’s wrong that his wife Marie, who works at a bar to support their three children, has to wear short skirts to get bigger tips, and that Bonny’s customers should get away with abusive behavior just because he is black.

Bicke aims at striking out at all the offenders, particularly the arc villain, Richard Nixon. Bicke’s boss (Jack Thompson) describes Nixon as the “greatest salesman” in history, because he swindled the American people not once but twice. But for Bicke, Nixon embodies everything that’s wrong with the world.

“Assassination of Nixon” unfolds as a catalogue of ill-fated events: The loan is rejected, Bicke’s ex-wife and his brother abandon him, and his dreams of starting a business die unrealized. As a result, he decides that the only way to change his insignificant life is to execute a grand gesture that will make his presence felt. Dreams give way to delusions, and a new Bicke emerges, a resolute, resourceful man, sets out on a crusade to right the world’s wrongs.

Centering on a man who plotted an abortive attempt to kill Nixon, “Assassination” is meant to be a chilling drama about the dark side of the American dream. Co-written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, the film is based on the real-life story of Samuel Bicke, who in 1974 attempted to hijack an airplane and planned to crash it into the White House. But Bicke’s goal to leave his mark on the world turned out to be a failure, too. He never succeeded in getting near the President. In the annals of assassins and would-be assassins, he’s just a footnote, eclipsed by the Watergate scandal and its extensive TV coverage.

Mueller sees this chapter of American history, one that began in 1963 with the first Kennedy assassination and ended in 1974 with Nixon’s resignation, as the decade of shock, one in which America lost its innocence. But, unfortunately, as a character study, “Assassination” is shallow, failing to illuminate the process of Bicke’s loss of sympathy and his determination to lash out in indiscriminate violence.

There’s a good deal irony in the story, since no one even noticed the assassination attempt, all the more underscoring Bicke’s alienation. American society has become so immune to violence that no individual act, no matter how horrific, has much impact anymore. Unlike future would-be assassinations, such as President Reagan’s, this attempt went unnoticed and then got lost amid the brouhaha of the Watergate scandal.

Like Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” Bicke is recording his observations into a tape recorder. Later, he sends the tapes to composer Leonard Bernstein and others. Bicke’s attempt to kill Nixon emerged later, after sending the confessional tapes to “Washington Post” reporter Jack Anderson, who wrote about the incident. The assault is taken from news accounts and F.B.I. files, and the news reports seen and heard at the end of the film are actual clips from CBS and NBC coverage of the hijacking.

Mueller and Kennedy combine their fictionalized script with facts of Bicke’s actual life, such as his family and professional circumstances, and the fact that he did face the possibility of criminal charges for receiving stolen goods.

Regrettably, “Assassination of Nixon” fails as a particular historical case study and as an allegory of the dark side of the American Dream. Bicke comes across as just another lonely and alienated figure. And he is really not a tragic hero, which means that comparisons to Arthur Miller’s “Death of Salesman” are unwarranted. Unlike Willy Loman, Bicke never convinces that he did believe in the American dream and in his right to own a piece of it. Bicke had a number of sales jobs, but he was never good at it. His lack success was frustrating experience that lowered his self-esteem.

It’s a known fact that many Americans form their opinions in their living room, while watching TV indiscriminately. Bicke’s responses and actions are meant to be typical of average citizens. When something goes wrong, Bicke looks to his leader. When he needs an answer to a question, he looks for it on TV. After all, Nixon, and every President after him, have run for office–and have run the country–on camera.

For a first feature, the film is technically well crafted. Visually, everything is seen from Bicke’s subjective point of view; all the unadulterated close-ups are reserved for him. Quite impressively, as Bicke descends into madness, the camera becomes unhinged and unstable. However, as a whole, “Assassination of Nixon” is directed in a cold, detached manner that prevents involvement or empathy with Bicke. As viewers, we seldom feel angry or shocked, even when Bicke goes beyond the pale.

Penn delivers a performance that’s vastly different from his Oscar-winning turn in “Mystic River.” In that picture, adorned with tattoos and surrounded by a queen and henchmen like a latter-day warlord, Penn was mythic and larger-than-life. In contrast, in “Assassination,” he seems to have shrunken in size, playing an “average Joe,” a failure both at home and in the workplace. In a remarkably understated performance, Penn excels as an ordinary man who feels forced to take extraordinary measures to be “somebody.”

In “Taxi Driver,” Bickle was obsessed with washing the scum, literal and human, from the streets, literal and human. His goal was to rescue a teenage prostitute by restoring her to her parents and small-town education. Bickle was a combination of a Western hero with a horror movie monster, placed in an urban film noir. A Vietnam vet turned taxi driver, Bickle lets the violence and squalor around him to explode in his mind. Bickle’s insomnia and sexual repression were directly related to the climatic orgy of violence at the end of the film.

“Taxi Driver” was an explosive film about the brutal consequence of emotional and psychology isolation among life’s fringe element. A social misfit, Bickle is unable to come to terms with the urban hell that both attracts and repels him. Unable to relate to any other person, Bickle finally explodes, releasing his bottled-up tensions in bloody massacre. Bickle sleeps in short naps during the day, pops pills to calm down his nerves, swings peach brandy, which he sometimes pours onto his breakfast cereal, goes to porn flicks to relax. “Taxi Driver” succeeded as an allegory of the American experience in Vietnam, showing how the country, just like Bickle, went from detached isolationism all the way to a violent but ineffective intervention

“Assassination of Nixon” fails to examine the psychological causes that push Bicke over the edge. Mueller and Kennedy’s script imposes an intellectual scheme upon Bicke’s story, which robs their film of any mystery. There is no historical context and no point of view from which to get a handle on Bicke. “Unlike Travis’s, Bicke’s journey from normalcy to despair and madness is simplistically depicted. Assassination of Nixon” is an individual’s disaster movie with no mind of its own. Unlike Bicke, Bickle remains fascinating throughout the film, perhaps because he is more than a certifiably insane character; he’s a projection of our nightmare of urban alienation.

“Assassination of Nixon” aims to show similarities between American society of the 1970s, and today, but, ultimately, it fails to work as period piece or as an allegory about our troubled times. The question of whether it was worth making a film about such a minor figure, a loser no one heard of, persists when the movie is over, and that’s a bad sign.

Credits:

Directed by Niels Mueller
Produced by Alfonso Cuarón, Jorge Vergara
Written by Niels Mueller, Kevin Kennedy
Music by Steven M. Stern
Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki
Edited by Jay Cassidy

Production company

Anhelo Productions
Appian Way
Esperanto Filmoj

Distributed by ThinkFilm

Release date: May 17, 2004 (Cannes); December 29, 2004 (US)

Running time: 95 minutes
Budget $4.6 million
Box office: $4.4 million