Despite some impressive acting and a fascinating subject matter this drama isnít quite as powerful or involving as it should be.
Sometimes real life events are more extraordinary than anything dreamt up by screenwriters. The real life events that form the basis for The Assassination of Richard Nixon are as extraordinary as the fact that it actually got made. In the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed inconceivable that a film about a man planning to hijack an airliner and fly it into the White House would make it to cinema screens. However, time and the support some major Hollywood talent have made the film a reality. But whilst the material is undeniably intriguing and benefits from a fine central performance, it never quite becomes the gripping drama it promises to be.
In 1974 a furniture salesman called Samuel J Byck (Sean Penn) was killed attempting to hijack an airliner. His ultimately doomed attempt at assassinating the 37th President of the United States never really impacted the history books because it ended in failure and was overshadowed by the turmoil of Watergate. Byck is a man whose faith in the American dream is shattered by the persistent failures in his life. Already struggling with the collapse of his marriage to wife Marie (Naomi Watts), he has also come to loathe his job which he feels is insincere and deceitful. The one ray of light in his life is the dream of opening a door-to-door tire repair service with his mechanic friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). But as his life deteriorates further Bicke increasingly comes to see Nixon as a villain who embodies all of the hypocrisy that is driving him to despair.
Lonely figures frustrated by the dark side of the American dream have appeared in many books and movies from Willy Loman to Travis Bickle. Niels Mullerís film is a convincing portrait of a man who is slowly broken down by his own inadequacies and the wider social forces around him. Aided by a meticulous and absorbing performance from Penn, the film takes us right in torment and depression of Bickeís life. One scene involving the protracted sale of a piece of furniture is almost agonising to watch as we see a man desperately uncomfortable with his job and the wider social acceptance of deception in pursuit of the dollar. Penn also manages to keep us with him as Bicke deteriorates further, making an assassin a recognisable individual rather than a distant madman.
Where the film ultimately doesnít convince is in its mixture of the personal drama with the wider political issues of the era. Nixon crops up in the film as topic of conversation and appears in the margins of the film on TV news footage. However, whilst his presence is acknowledged, the film never really grapples with the motives Bicke had for killing the President and why he came to be such a catalyst for all of his problems. Perhaps Muller wanted to draw broad parallels between Nixon and the current US president who some feel to be his true heir. But such comparisons feel half-hearted and vague. Whilst the film is an impressive portrait of the breakdown of Sam Bicke, it is a less successful portrait of the attempted assassination of Richard Nixon.
If you want to know more about the real life events behind the film Movie City News has a short bio on Sam Bicke (or is it Byck?) and the paper that eventually succeded in holding Nixon to account (the Washington Post) has an extensive section on the whole Watergate affair. 25 years after Watergate, David Greenberg wrote about the legacy of Nixon for Slate and if you want to see the kind of hypocrisy that so upset Sam Bicke then Wikiquote has a selection of Nixon’s comments. You can listen to Sean Penn talk to Elvis Mitchell about the film courtesy of KCRW and Cynthia Fuchs has an interesting interview with director Niels Muller at Morphizm.