Movie: The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Our Rating: 4.50

It's rare that a first-time filmmaker nails two American eras at once, but that's the wonder Niels Mueller has worked with The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a keen slice of psycho-history that uses a little-known incident from the early 1970s to make a point about powerlessness then and now.

Acting as director and co-writer, Mueller (writer of Tadpole and editor of Sweet Nothing) wrests gripping drama out of the story of Sam Byck, an unemployed tire salesman who in 1974 tried to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. Knowing that Byck failed (the story was downplayed to avoid copycat attempts) doesn't detract from the film's power. What's even more impressive is how Mueller shrinks from drawing the easy parallel between Byck's mad plan and today's perpetual state of terror alert. Instead, the movie shows how executive audacity can move the average Joe to become frighteningly less ordinary.

In the movie, Byck has become Bicke; as played by the ever-brilliant Sean Penn, he's an awkward little man trying to retain a foothold in a world that appears to have scant interest in him. Separated from a wife (Naomi Watts) who's more over their relationship than he realizes, Bicke is working as an office-furniture salesman while trying to secure a loan for an unorthodox tire business. Like many men of the time – and even more of today – he's pinning his hopes on one big idea that will put him on Easy Street, solving his professional and personal problems in one fell swoop.

When the plan isn't going so well – and it usually isn't – Bicke tells anyone who'll listen that he's simply too ethical to lie with the zeal that a career in business has come to require. It's a pathetic rationalization, yet filmmaker Mueller's expert reading of 1970s social currents shows that Bicke may nonetheless have a point. In a crucial scene, the latter's furniture-store boss lauds President Nixon as a consummate salesman for having won election – twice – on a promise to end the Vietnam War. The omnipresent Tricky Dick thus attains a unique stature in Bicke's mind as an exemplar of the new fraudulence – an obstacle that needs to be removed if civilization (or at least Bicke's place in it) is to be preserved.

It isn't just the 'Nam stuff that Mueller remembers as if it were yesterday. His interpretation of post-Johnsonian race relations is spot-on, as evidenced by Bicke's dealings with his saner, more anxious partner (Don Cheadle) in the tire business. There's also a pithy scene in which Bicke foolhardily visits a Black Panther headquarters to stir up some solidarity with his perceived brothers in oppression.

The accuracy extends all the way to set dressing: You won't spot an item of apparel or a piece of store merchandise that's out of place for the times. Pay close attention to Bicke's mustache, because it's an epoch-specific symbol for his thwarted machismo. It also puts him in strong pathological company with Robert De Niro's oafish Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy and Eric Roberts' volatile Paul Schneider in Star 80. (Early reviews have compared Bicke to another, more iconic De Niro creation – Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle – but that 'stache says otherwise. )

Assassination could be a perfect movie except for one glitch in its white-knuckle conclusion, when the words of a TV reporter directly contradict something we've just seen on the screen. Mueller could be having a subtle poke at the propensity of news outlets to get stories wrong, but if that's the case, the idea is so undersold as to be distracting. Otherwise, media reach is one of the film's most effective motifs, with Nixon's stony face routinely staring down at Bicke from TV sets, proclaiming his non-crookdom. Watching the movie, I remembered how Nixon seemed to be everywhere in those days. How odd that now seems, given our current president's rigorous avoidance of press conferences. Nixon, who loathed the media, went before the cameras because it was part of the job; Bush, true to form, has divined that the best way to keep the job is to show up for it as seldom as possible. I'd love to know what Byck/Bicke would have thought of that business model.


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