Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 19, 2005)
The title of The Assassination of Richard Nixon might make one think it’s a fantasy tale. After all, no one ever assassinated President Nixon, and unlike successors Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, no one ever got off a shot at him. That doesn’t mean no one wanted to kill Nixon, and Assassination follows a real-life story in that regard.
Assassination looks at the February 22, 1974 attempt of Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) to crash a jet into the White House. The movie briefly shows him at BWI Airport before it then jumps back two weeks to show Sam as he narrates a bizarre letter to Leonard Bernstein. From there we skip back one year and see Sam as he starts a new job as a salesman at Jack Jones’ (Jack Thompson) Fine Office Interiors. Jack offers Sam measures to boost his self-esteem, but these don’t seem to help the jittery and insecure salesman who quickly fails to live up to his boss’s expectations.
Other areas of his life manifest problems for Sam. His estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) wants little to do with him, though Sam maintains an unrealistic hope for their reunification. Sam also had a rift with his brother Julius (Michael Wincott) and the pair have little contact.
As the movie progresses, things don’t improve for Sam, and his mental health deteriorates. Obsessed with truthfulness, Jack’s duplicitous sales tactics bother him, and he starts to rally against “the system” which he sees represented by President Nixon. Sam even attempts to join the Black Panthers as a method to “fight the power” and he indicates he feels like a slave.
A few matters push Sam over the top. For one, the traveling tire store he wants to open with buddy Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle) fails to get off the ground when a government authority turns down their loan request. In addition, Naomi formally divorces him. Sam starts to go off the deep end and he hatches a plan to crash a plane into the White House.
How true to the source should biographical pictures be? I suppose that depends, and some have taken issue with Assassination. The flick changes the real man’s name from “Sam Byck” for reasons unknown, though I suspect legal issues were the cause. It holds pretty close to the facts of the matter in many ways, but it distorts things in some other ways.
A primary alteration comes from the casting, especially in regard to the handsome Penn. The real Byck was a fat, unattractive man; Paul Giamatti would have been a closer match, but even the Sideways star is notably better-looking than Byck. I suppose this kind of Hollywood poetic license isn’t a big deal, though, and it doesn’t detract from the story at hand.
I do take issue with the film’s tone, however. Assassination makes Bick out to be a more sympathetic character than he really deserves, and it diminishes his essentially insanity to some degree. Sure, Bick turns pretty nutty by the film’s end, but it portrays him as such a sad sack that we sort of kind of almost like the guy. Byck was a nutjob who performed some horrendous acts, so while I understand the attempt to get inside his head, I don’t like the way the film empathizes a little too much with his sensibility.
Part of the problem stems from the way that the movie hammers us over the head with its images. We repeatedly see Sam’s influences, as frequent shots of Nixon appear along with other imagery of injustices and protests. Geez, with all those factors at play, it’s no wonder the guy went bonkers; the flick makes the situation out to be so dire that his response seems almost logical.
Watts’ extremely unsympathetic turn as Marie assists in this tone. I wouldn’t say she comes from the “shrill harpy” school of acting, but she certainly makes Marie unlikable. This serves to force us to side with Sam even more, as we feel bad for the poor guy in the face of his cold, uncaring wife.
At least Penn does a good job in the lead. Since the movie follows him with an almost claustrophobic closeness, that becomes particularly important. Barely a shot appears without Penn in it, so the story rides on his work. Apparently influenced by De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin - along with a little Travis Bickle as well - Penn seems a bit mannered at times, but he invests himself fully in this awkward character and brings out his personality. Penn handles Sam’s decent well, as he rarely goes too over the top to depict the character’s disintegration.
While I don’t care for the film’s sympathetic emphasis, I do like the unusual way it brings out some character elements. For example, we learn that Jack wants Sam to cut off his mustache. Sam grew it to impress Marie, and he clings to it as a crucial factor in his desired reconciliation despite its actual - and obvious - irrelevance. This brings us to a scene in which he does shave it, and the movie depicts this as a much more monumental event than one might expect.
It’s moments like that during which we really get inside Sam’s head, and those are some of the flick’s best parts. Actually, I suppose most of the movie keeps us in Sam’s psyche, which his why the sympathetic tone probably makes sense. Because of this The Assassination of Richard Nixon presents a fairly involving take on a nutbag. I don’t think the movie needed to try so hard to put us on Sam’s side, but it creates an interesting look at an obscure historical footnote.