The Assassination of Richard Nixon
- Reviewed by: Avril Carruthers
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Current Rating 8.22/10 | 9 Votes
Produced by Alfonso Cuaron, Jorge Vergara
Cast: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Brad Henke, Nick Searcy, Michael Wincott, April Grace, Jared Dorrance
Samuel J. Bicke (Sean Penn) is not a well-adjusted man. That is, he finds it difficult to fit into a job that requires him to compromise his principles: lie to customers, cheat, manipulate, use trickery and so on. He is a doubly maladjusted man in that he’s in the very job that requires all of these abilities for success – he’s a salesman. It reminds me of the man who constantly complains about the contents of his lunchbox to his workmates - then it turns out he always makes his lunch himself.
Bicke’s maladjustment goes further in that he’s upset that others are required to put up with abuses in their jobs as well. His ex-wife Marie (Naomi Watts), for example, has to wear short skirts and the wandering hands of customers in her waitressing job. His mechanic friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) insouciantly puts up with racial abuse from customers. It upsets Bicke and makes him angry that these people, who are closest to him, can be polite and professional and just get on with the job despite the injustices. Where they can let these things go as just part of getting a pay check, he cannot and it fuels a growing dissatisfaction and resentment in him that generalises out to his entire world, so that he sees injustice everywhere he looks.
Bicke’s dream is to start a business with Bonny – a new concept that the bank manager to whom he applies for a loan finds difficult to understand – a mobile car tyre business. Unconsciously, as he pitches his idea along with childish, coloured-in drawings of the school bus he hopes to buy and convert, and his naïve principles of how business should be conducted, he indicates to the bank manager just exactly why he would be a bad risk. We know the eight to ten weeks he is told he will have to wait for his loan to be approved will end in disappointment. For Bicke it’s an unbearable time of waiting, while he has to endure being a not-very-good salesman.
Meanwhile, Marie is moving on: something else Bicke cannot accept along with her knowledge of his inability to accept it. The fact that she fobs him off and lies to him, that he believes her and wastes hours waiting for her when it’s plain she will not show, that she’s harshly pragmatic about the job she needs to support their children, and that her new boyfriend drives a Cadillac – all these fuel his sense of unfairness.
It’s 1974, and Bicke listens uncomfortably to his boss Jack Jones (a sharklike Jack Thompson, embodying a suave, successful salesman with calculating, sardonic eyes) giving an object lesson in his craft. He cites Richard Nixon as the greatest salesman in history. Nixon, says Jones admiringly, got into the White House in 1968 on the promise of getting US soldiers out of
Bicke epitomises the victim/rescuer mindset which demands that people be protected from exploitation, that the sole focus be on wrongdoers being stopped rather than that the exploited become resourceful, strong, resilient survivors regardless. It’s an attitude which, in its attention on protecting the weak, with whom he identifies, is almost un-American. Bicke’s
At the same time Bicke’s moralistic principles can be conveniently laid aside to enable him to lie to defraud his own brother, for whom he used to work in his tyre sales business. The enterprise inadvertently lands Bonny in jail. It’s typically a consequence of not seeing realistically the consequences of one’s actions.
The truly fascinating and scary thing about this story, so flawlessly acted by a pot-bellied, submissively-stooped Sean Penn, is that it is based on a true story and a real person – although the name has been slightly changed. Even more interesting is that writer/director Niels Mueller wrote the character and imagined his back story first – initially about a plot to assassinate LBJ – only to find that buried in news archives there had been an actual person with most of the history, actual attributes, socio-economic concerns and obsessions, as his fictional Samuel J. Bicke. The fact that in February 1974 the real would-be assassin hatched a plan to fly a plane into the White House shows that the idea was out there with full intent long before 9/11/01.
Ironically, news of the assassination attempt died under the Watergate scandal that had Nixon finally resigning six months later. The man attributed with actually bringing Nixon down, his identity long held secret, was revealed only last month, in May 2005, as the former deputy director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, W. Mark Felt. Felt is no doubt a hero, a powerful man with principles and a man with foresight and insight - qualities that, besides his principles, Bicke lacked.
The film opens and closes with voiced audio tapes made by Bicke and sent to Leonard Bernstein, who like Bicke, sympathised with and gave money to the Black Panther movement, and whom Bicke feels as an impartial artist will understand both his plea for the underdog and the action he is about to take. The tapes are almost verbatim with those sent by the real life person on whom Bicke is based.
The power of this debut film by writer/director Niels Mueller is in the long, silent, heart-sinking phases where we watch the hapless Bicke, waiting for Marie and the kids, waiting for his mail from the bank, hugging Bonny’s son after a family dinner, completely out of his depth in this society. We observe him in his trapped, increasingly helpless manner as he talks the bank manager out of giving him a loan, or alienates Marie even further. There’s also situational, unconscious humour in his meeting with the leader of the Black Panther movement where he suggests, with a spiel redolent with dodgy salesmanese, that the Panthers would double their membership to include disenfranchised whites by changing their name to Zebras.
There is admirable understatement where Penn is simply allowed to be amazing and it takes over the entire film. Matching this are outstanding performances by Jack Thompson, Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts, Brad Henke as Jack’s son Marty and Michael Wincott as Sam’s brother Julius.
© Avril Carruthers 12th June 2005
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