Political Film Society - The Assassination of Richard Nixon

PFS Film Review
The Assassination of Richard Nixon


The Assassination of Richard NixonWhat kind of person would formulate an intention to assassinate a president of the United States? The Assassination of Richard Nixon, directed by Niels Mueller, attempts to answer that question by reconstructing the personality of someone whose life ended on February 22, 1974, in an effort to hijack an airplane so that he could fly into and blow up the White House after a similar attempt recently failed. The movie does not focus on an Islamic terrorist but instead on Samuel Bicke (played by Sean Penn), though the person on which the movie is based was a Philadelphian surnamed Byck who for at least two years had been sending bizarre tapes to all sorts of political leaders. The film begins on that fateful day, as Bicke is armed to do the deed, but the last minutes of his life are not on the screen until the final footage. The next scene, captioned "Two Weeks Earlier," portrays Bicke dictating his life story to a tape recorder, so that he will finally accomplish something, to be sent to New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein, his favorite conductor because he considers his music to be "honest" and "pure." Voiceovers throughout supply Bicke's motivational state as he reflects on his own life as well as his assessment of the American plutocracy that, in his opinion, denies decency to common people. Then the film moves back to one year earlier, as Bicke's life unravels. Although his father started a retail tire company in Pittsburgh in 1912, the business is now run by Bicke's older brother Julius (played by Michael Wincott). Bicke, rather than working at the family business, quit because he felt that his brother's sharp business practices required him to lie to customers. Evidently, he then tried to be successful on his own, but he has a history of being unable to hold down a job for very long. As a result, his marriage with Marie (played by Naomi Watts) has fallen on the rocks; she has sued for divorce and has been granted custody of their two children, since she is steadily employed, albeit only as a waiter. Bicke, recently been employed as a salesperson at a retail office furniture store, has also persuaded his friend Bonny Simmons (played by Don Cheadle), who runs a small car repair shop, to apply jointly for a loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA) in order to finance a new business, a tire repair company on wheels that would respond to flat tire distress calls by offering a full range of tires for sale in a converted school bus. In short, Bicke has high hopes that his wife will not divorce him, his new boss will be impressed with his sales performance, and SBA will grant him a loan. But all his hopes are dashed. His wife does not want to give him another chance; she has another boyfriend, and the marriage is soon officially dissolved. He cannot conform to the business methods required by his boss, Jack Jones (played by Jack Thompson), who actually is very helpful, providing as he does books by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. And SBA turns him down for the loan, possibly because he pesters the local SBA office because he will not accept the bureaucratic fact that loan applications are approved in Washington, not at local offices. Ultimately, Bicke even steals from his brother to avoid eviction from his spartan apartment. A fascinating political commentary runs through the downward spiral of his fortunes. Bicke repeatedly says that the rich have no concern for those less fortunate; presumably, his thesis is originally based on his negative perception of American business ethics, later on the SBA loan denial, and the Watergate investigations that he views from time to time also play a role. Interestingly, Jack Jones tells Bicke that Richard Nixon is the greatest salesperson in the United States; having promised to pull American troops out of Vietnam in 1968, he was able to sell himself that he won reelection in 1972 despite making the same unfulfilled campaign promise. On one occasion, an interview with a Black Panther Party official so resonates with Bicke's political views that he goes to the local party office, congratulates the party for peddling truth, offers a small donation, and suggests that the party could expand membership by becoming the Zebra Party, with white as well as black membership. When The Assassination of Richard Nixon ends tragically, the film has fulfilled the aim of demonstrating the psychology of those who were alienated even before corporate greed was later unleashed under the slogan "deregulation." Explicitly asking why Samuel Bicke acted as he did, the film implicitly asks why there are not more Samuel Bickes today in an America, why the gap between rich and poor is even wider yet there is no articulate voice for those who question the obvious lack of political opposition to the status quo. Filmviewers and filmmakers evidently prefer Forrest Gump, not Samuel Bicke, as the nation's Everyman icon, but the Political Film Society has nominated The Assassination of Richard Nixon as the best film of 2005 raising consciousness about the loss of democracy in America. MH

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