Tuesday 6 September 2011

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)


Everyone, at some point in their lives, has experienced a sense of the world being against them. No matter what they do, things just seem to be against them, circumstances never in their favour. It’s not fair. Worse still, everyone around seems to be unaffected by this, or at least unsurprised by this lack of fairness in the world. Things are meant to be different, people are meant to be different. How can you be the only one to feel like this? You’ve tried to be decent, hard-working, honest, but you just can’t seem to catch a break. Things have to change. Something must be done. Someone must be responsible. Such is the worldview of perennial loser Samuel Bicke, who decides that his suffering must end and the system must change.

In 1974, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a lonely and ineffectual salesman who feels wronged by his family, friends, employers and the world in general. He believes he stands for truth, honesty and integrity, so he regularly loses his job rather than lie to his customers. His plans for success are hindered by this sensibility. Pushed closer to the edge, he begins to associate both his failings, and society’s, with President Richard Nixon, who represents all things dishonest. As such, he decides that things must change and that he must therefore kill Nixon.

Almost to make the point of such a universal perception of the world being against you, when the original idea for the story was conceived, it was genuinely begun as a work of fiction. However, over the course of researching the period and story, the writers discovered that something very similar had actually occurred in the early 1970s. A failed businessman, Samuel Jospeh Byck, stormed a Delta Air Lines flight and, gun in hand, tried to get the pilots to get the plane in the air and crash it into the White House… eerily prophetic, right? His attempt failed and the airport police killed him on the plane, although he had already claimed some lives himself. And things didn’t stop at a deranged man attempting to hijack a plane for the world’s most dramatic Presidential assassination. Byck had made several attempts to start a business, all of which failed. As time went on, his marriage became strained, he began to suffer from depression and he also began to harbour conspiratorial theories that the government was secretly trying to oppress the poor and underprivileged. He made his attempts to be heard in some way, by trying to join the Black Panthers, whom he believed shared his outrage at the system; by protesting outside the White House, sometimes dressed as Santa Claus; and sent recorded messages to various public figures, explaining his motives to people he thought would understand. Frankly, if Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy had ignored this stuff in their writing, it would have been very foolish.

As it is, they recognised the weight of this story and tailored the idea to reflect Byck more directly. Of course, certain modifications were made for the purposes of a cleaner film. They concentrated more on his personal life, attempting to give a stronger sense of his motivations by focusing on the inadequacies and flaws. They show the awkward ineptitude of his working life, his inability to recognise that his marriage is pretty much over, his strained interactions with other people in day-to-day life. The most significant part of Samuel Bicke’s life in the film is his belief that the reason he fails so consistently is not because he is himself a failure, but that he is simply too honest in a dishonest world. As far as he is concerned, the world is meant to operate on truth and integrity, that the honest people will thrive and the dishonest will perish. Essentially, he bought into the whole idea of the American Dream. The only problem is that world simply doesn’t work like that. Things aren’t fair, things aren’t equal. He looks around and sees racism, sexism, war, lies, dishonesty. How can an honest person get ahead in this kind of system?

Of course, Bicke ignores the reality of his own personality and his own situation. For all of his espousal of being honest and true, he is as big a liar as anyone. The people at his newest job think he’s a happily married man, even though he’s been separated for almost two years. His soon to be ex-wife believes he is doing well in his new job, and can maintain support money for the kids. He likes to think that the reason he keeps quitting his jobs is because he refuses to lie to the customer (certainly an admirable quality), but the fact is that he is just a bad and ineffectual salesman. Considering how meagre an impression he makes on people and how poor he is at effective communication, this is a man of extreme arrogance. It’s one thing to look at the world around you and want to change it for the better, but when your reasons are built on a severe sense of delusion, it’s not going to get you far. His sense of how the world works is so skewed that when he applies for a loan, the fact that he was “honest” in filling out the form means that it’s as good as done. He honestly can’t see that, to the loan officer, he comes across as untrustworthy, unreliable and a little bit too intense. He also has the most bizarre idea for the Black Panthers, which he tries to pitch them directly:
Samuel Bicke: I wanna throw an idea at you… Zebras.
Harold Mann: Zebras?
Samuel Bicke: Zebras. You see, they're black, and they’re white. The Black
Panthers become The Zebras, and membership will double.

To him, it makes perfect sense, it’s flawless. However, it’s a clear signpost that he has a fundamental misunderstanding about how things work in the world, believing that his struggle with the system is no different than that of your average oppressed black man of the early 70s.

In the film, they refer to a good salesman having “competitive spirit.” This is something Bicke most definitely does not have. He ultimately gets pushed too far and begins to take action towards changing the broken system, and uses something of a personal barometer in selecting both his target and his confessor. For the former, he chooses President Nixon, the incredibly unpopular politician who still managed to get elected twice. His boss describes Nixon as the best salesman in the country, selling the public on one thing, not delivering on that promise and then selling it all over again. Clearly, it’s not just Bicke that thinks he’s corruption incarnate. For the latter, Bicke looks to composer Leonard Bernstein, whom he believes is a man that will understand his struggle, his plight, his need for a world built on truth and honesty. Bicke records several taped messages about his motives, his plans to take down the system that seeks to subjugate the poor masses like himself. Shortly before Bicke makes his way to the fateful plane, he mails these recordings from the airport.

The character of Samuel Bicke is very well drawn, and played in typically excellent manner by Sean Penn. Penn has always been someone possessed of a simmering frustration in the world around him, and his constant protests and remonstrations make him the most suitable candidate for the role. Even if you often can’t say you like Bicke, you can sympathise and you absolutely understand how he comes to be as fractured and desperate as he is. As he approaches situations of confrontation, where he feels that something inherently unjust is occurring, he reacts with a blend of queasy discomfort and indignant rage.

However, I feel like there is a degree of incompleteness to the film. Although we do understand why his target is Nixon, because he just flat out tells us, more could have been done to underline these feelings. Nixon is really just an occasional background figure, shown on televisions in bars or Bicke’s workplace. There is never anything really done to make us believe that Bicke believes there to be a direct link between Nixon’s dishonesty and his own failing. Of course, these feelings would have been baseless, since Nixon wasn’t actually out to get this guy, but they don’t really have to make rational sense to us, we just have to think it makes sense to him. Bicke barely mentions him. And on the other side of things, the reasoning for Bicke to make his tapes for Leonard Bernstein feels a bit thin. He simply says that Bernstein writes honest music. Again, the reasons don’t really have to make sense to us, we only have to believe they make sense to him, and I don’t feel it. Honestly, it makes me feel a bit weird to be making these points, since these things actually happened. Also, the real life Byck was clearly not in a correct state of mind when he did these things, so his reasoning was clearly faulty in all sorts of ways. Nevertheless, I personally can’t get past the thin ground on which the film’s dramatic drive becomes based on. If it just felt firmer, if these points were made clearer, if just an extra ten minutes was given to the film to solidify these motives, I would have been more convinced.

Then again, I’ve been known to be too picky at times.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a fine drama, with an interesting character conveyed with great conviction by Sean Penn. However, the balance of things in the script and direction hinder what could have been something truly great. A little less information here, a bit more information there and the overall struggle would have been far more resonant and defined. It’s still a very good and interesting watch, but there is just a feeling that it could have been a little bit more.

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