The Assassination of Richard Nixon
As would-be presidential assassins go, Sam Byck was a miserable failure. In 1974, Byck attempted to hijack an airplane with the intent to fly it into the White House. However, the poorly planned hijacking was such a mess that Byck was killed by police before the plane even left the gate, and his ambitious motivation for the soon-forgotten crime was only discovered weeks later. Aiming for infamy, Byck died in obscurity. He was not only overshadowed in the tumultuous contemporary news by Watergate and the Vietnam War, but Byck also suffered by comparison to his peers: sexier failed assassins, like Manson moll Lynne 'Squeaky' Fromme and disgruntled housewife Sara Jane Moore, both of whom attacked Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford, in the space of a month. In Niels Mueller's fine The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004), Byck's defining impotence is so carefully wrought that he emerges from his anonymity as an effectively empathetic poster-boy for all despondent losers with violent urges and messianic delusions. Sean Penn stars as "Sam Bicke" (a name change so trivial one wonders if it was meant less to connote fictionalization but primarily to invite comparison to Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle; as "Bicke," Penn constantly evokes a hybrid of Robert De Niro's brilliant performances as Bickle and The King of Comedy's hapless Rupert Pupkin), who, before his inept attempt at history, may have been one of the worst salesmen ever. Bicke is enslaved to an exaggerated sense of zealous personal ethics, making him unable to "lie" to make a living selling office furniture a handicap so socially debilitating that it has ruined his marriage to Marie (Naomi Watts), destroyed his relationship with his successful brother (Michael Wincott), and runs the risk of alienating his only remaining friend, Bonny (Don Cheadle), an auto mechanic with whom Bicke hopes to start his own business. Mueller's movie (co-written by the director with Kevin Kennedy), which primarily concerns the final year of Bicke's life, doesn't investigate how Bicke originally began his descent into madness. He was, after all, at one time apparently sane enough for Marie to bear three of his children, and for the decent Bonny to humor his eccentricities. By the time The Assassination of Richard Nixon begins, Bicke has already begun his downward keel, and although the movie runs a brisk 95 minutes, that gives ample time for Mueller and Penn to explore his acceleration toward self-destruction. However, unlike most dramas about relentlessly depressing downward spirals, Bicke makes a strongly sympathetic anti-hero. His desperation to succeed on his own lofty, but impractical, terms is the key to his failure, and his yearning to repair ties with his wife is heartbreaking; unable to introspect, Bicke's self-imposed failure transmogrifies into a mammoth persecution complex. Bicke feels his life is held hostage by a conspiracy of powerful liars, beginning with the successful salesmen (and boss, Jack Thompson) who belittle him at work, and leading to the world's shiftiest, most powerful salesman: Richard Nixon. Although his intent to assassinate the president of the United States is fueled by personal angst rather than politics, Bicke's jones for victimization makes him an eager sponge for leftist conspiracy theories (the movie's funniest scene involves Bicke pitching a significant change of focus to the Black Panthers), which further fuel his detachment, paranoia, and helplessness. Penn is terrific as Bicke, always keeping him likable despite his instability, and making his faltering final act (during which he murdered two people) more sad than it is revolting. It's Penn's best performance since 1995's Dead Man Walking, and a marvelously confident and controlled directorial debut by Mueller. Byck may have become a mere footnote to history (except for discussion of this movie and his similar fictionalization in Stephen Sondheim's great musical Assassins, Byck's real story has very little Internet presence), but he may have inspired the most accurate and telling depiction yet of the making of an assassin. New Line presents The Assassination of Richard Nixon in a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Keep-case.