The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Sean Penn is true to form in this interesting historical thriller with contemporary relevance.

By Tara P Woolnough

There’s always something tremendously satisfying about going to see a film which you know virtually nothing about, and finding it not only possessed of a fascinating subject matter, but also finely realized. On that basis, I am quite tempted to leave off writing right now, and instead implore you just to see the movie. Nevertheless, for the benefit of the cautious and the curious, I can tell you that this rather ironically titled film, despite the fact that the script was written over 5 years ago, and that it is set in 1973/4, bears an uncanny relevance to present times.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon gives a first person account of anti-hero Sam Bicke’s progressive disillusionment with the American dream and his consequent social alienation. It culminates in his plan to kill the president, whom he sees as representative of all that is wrong with America. Bicke, depicted in a credible and compelling performance by Sean Penn, is a hopelessly idealistic man, whose inability to willfully deceive others makes him utterly unsuited to his profession as a salesman. Failing quite miserably at both his vocation and his increasingly desperate attempts at reconciliation with his wife, the film tracks Bicke’s gradual but steady decline into psychosis. It is brilliant because the narrative structure and the point-of-view shots combine to heighten the level of identification which the viewer feels with Bicke, and with his sense of injustice at thwarted endeavours to own ‘a little bit of the American dream’.

Yet, despite the ultimately tragic and potentially depressing nature of this story, there is much bathetic humour and dramatic irony that serve to alleviate the overall tone, and inject it with humanism. Particularly memorable is the scene where Bicke visits the Black Panthers, to offer his ideological and financial support (he makes a seemingly arbitrary donation of $107), and the inspired notion that the BPs could double their membership by changing their name to the ‘Zebras’, thus appealing to oppressed white people too; unsurprisingly (to us) this suggestion, along with Bicke’s avowal – “I’m not the man in the cadillac. That’s not me,” – fall on bemused, if not deaf ears. Or in another episode, towards the end of the film, we watch Bicke staging a dress rehearsal of his plan, but the gravity of his intention is offset by the comic presence of two pathetic chair-effigies with lampshades for heads, wearing hats. 

The tragically flawed character of Sam Bicke invites comparison with other ‘oppressed underdog’ types, perhaps most obviously Death of a Salesman protagonist, Willy Loman. However, the notable and striking difference here is that director Niels Mueller’s debut film is a tale crafted more or less faithfully from the real life of Samuel J Byck, who really did make a (fairly abysmal) attempt to assassinate Nixon, in the manner described. Considering that this man is a fierce contender for least memorable would-be presidential assassin, there is further irony that among Bicke’s final words, he declares, “they will never forget me.” In today’s climate of fervent remembrance in the face of atrocity, this film’s strangely engaging portrayal of a terrorist-in-the-making, is especially poignant.
Contributors retain the copyright to their own contributions. Everything else is copyright © Spannered 2015.
Please do not copy whole articles: instead, copy a bit and link to the rest. Thanks!