The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Jan 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

While some may be confused and possibly offended at the provocative and patently untrue title of this movie, it declares in bold terms the intentions of a sad, lonely, frustrated, often delusional, occasionally brilliant man to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House at the sunset of our 37th president’s political career. A nebbish failure who wants to strike back at his mocking enemies? Yeah, it’s been done before. A good, but unlucky, man who just can’t take it anymore and decides some people have to die to fulfill one thoroughly psychotic last will and testament? Not hard to compile a list of films with that simple synopsis. Does this tale really need telling again? Didn’t Martin Scorsese pretty much cover this? Does this genre really have room for another tale of a kicked-around time bomb that at some point is “going to show them all”?

After a viewing of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, you’ll agree that there obviously is room, and this entry could very well be a defining one for a genre that just begs for clichés and screams for stereotypes. Based on true events, the film’s slow, almost laconic, storytelling and deeply rendered characters will leave a very lasting impression for those justifiably wary souls who’ve had it with all the Travis Bickle imitators we’ve had to bear through the years. This film is different, and scarier, than all of those. In an artful and subtle way, it turns events that occurred more than 30 years ago into relevant commentary on today.

Sean Penn plays Samuel Bicke, a failed tire salesman on his way to becoming a failed office furniture salesman. His brutally direct and physically imposing boss Jack (Jack Thompson) tries to show him the ropes, sets him up with self-help cassettes, and generally tries to make a “successful” man out of him. Sam tries, but Jack’s prescriptions for success are just too much for him, more appropriate for the go-getter type that Sam could never be. Sam lives in a shitty apartment, all the while trying to win back his estranged wife, cocktail waitress Marie (Naomi Watts), and his kids, who are spending more time with Marie’s boyfriend than with him. His attempts at reconciliation are so disturbing and hard to watch that you’ll have a permanent grimace on your face as these heartbreaking vignettes play out. So, who’s to blame for poor Sammy’s plight? Sam knows, and he’s going to take care of it and explain everything in tape recordings that are to be delivered to famed conductor Leonard Bernstein. How did Bernstein get so lucky? Well, because Sammy is cracking up, that’s why, and the most powerful man in the free world is going to feel Sammy’s wrath.

But we all know that Mr. Nixon resigned his post without a scratch, so what happened to Sammy’s plan? Someone pays for Sammy’s angst, and it isn’t Tricky Dick.

This film, although treading familiar ground, is an original and disturbing achievement. It’s an honest and painful presentation of a bizarre and bloody footnote to history that most people had never heard about until now, with implications and a depth not found in lesser fare.


Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills); 248-263-2111.

Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].