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Penn pall
The Assassination of Richard Nixon aims high
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Character Assassination: From surfer dude to political hitman. By Peter Keough.

My memory may be fading, but I seem to recall that every time you looked at a TV screen in the early ’70s, you’d see the basilisk face of Richard Nixon looking back. As things turned rotten with the Vietnam War, the economy, and Watergate, there’d be the sweaty mask of the man responsible as he made excuses and told lies; it provided a convenient target onto which everyone could project his or her discontent for ills political and personal, real and imagined. You’d think the guy would figure out that he should keep a low profile, or maybe, like our current head of state, limit appearances to affirmative photo ops, some of them orchestrated, like the legendary carrier landing, by pros from Hollywood.

Instead, Nixon made his decline public, a spectacle for all to see. And on film, that includes Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), the anti-hero in first-time director Niels Mueller’s grim, schematic, illuminating fable. Inspired by the real Sam Byck, a misfit who tried to kill Nixon by hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House in 1974, this Sam seethes under the doomed president’s gaze as his own life goes down the tubes.

He’s separated from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), and children, and his sniveling attempts to reconcile with her induce cringes. He’s estranged from his Orthodox Jewish brother, Julius (Michael Wincott), a forbidding Old Testament figure who runs a tire store and charges inflated prices. Sam used to work there, but he quit, so he says, because he couldn’t tell a lie. Sam is an idealist: he believes in truth, personal integrity, and social justice, especially when it pertains to him.

So he gets a job as a salesman at an office-furniture store. It’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he takes heart from the instructional tapes and books — Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thought and Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends and Influence People — that his sleazy boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), assigns him. Sam agrees: he must learn to believe. But what Jack wants him to believe in are the store’s shoddy products. "I can believe anything," Jack says, and he points to the image of Nixon on the TV. There’s the greatest salesman of all time, he tells Sam. He sold the American people on a bogus product — himself — twice.

As for Sam’s own beliefs, they are, he suspects, illusions. For one thing, his plans never seem to work out. His brainstorm of creating a mobile tire service depends on a bus that doesn’t work and a government loan. The latter seems unlikely because his partner (Don Cheadle as the voice of reason) is black. His idea to further the cause of racial justice is actually a good one. In one of the film’s best scenes, he visits a local Black Panther office and suggests they change the name to "Zebras." They’d double their membership, he explains, recruiting bitter and disenfranchised whites as well as blacks. The new name might be wanting, but not his insight into how the powers that be use race to cloud the deeper conflict of class.

Mostly, though, Sam has doubts about himself because he’s a liar too. At work, he lies about products and prices; at home, he tells his wife how great his job is and how successful he is at it in a vain effort to win her back. And he lies to Leonard Bernstein, sending him audio tapes explaining how it’s all the system’s fault and how the ruthless and the rich are to blame for all his problems so he has to fight back by destroying his nemesis and mirror image, Richard Nixon.

The first thing most people are going to think of when they see this film is Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Fair enough, but the differences are crucial. Travis lacked a political consciousness, however self-serving; he’s pure anarchic rage. And Mueller lacks any of Scorsese’s style: the film at times feels like 90 minutes stuck in a fly-specked apartment with someone who smells. All the romantic trappings of the protagonist have been stripped away and we’re left with a latter-day Willie Loman without even memories facing a world that’s been taken over, as Sam claims, by the bullies. What else is there to do but act the same way? Sam’s response is to make a grand gesture, to become a brief item on the news, a footnote to history. The Sam Bicke within us all should learn from his example.

Issue Date: January 14 - 20, 2005
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