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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The public death of a salesman

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Japanese title: Richard Nixon Ansatsu o Kuwadateta Otoko
Director: Niels Mueller
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
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In February of 1974, amid the political turmoil of the Watergate scandal, an ex-salesman named Sam Bicke decided he was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. His solution: hijack an airplane and fly it into the White House. Bicke failed completely -- just as he had in most of his life -- but the footnote to history that he represents has taken on an eerie significance since 9/11.

News photo
Sean Penn in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon"

Director and writer Niels Mueller, in his debut, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," tries to fathom what makes a man go so far over the edge of reason. Mueller seeks to draw an individual portrait of disillusion that is, in some broader sense, meant to represent the end of the American Dream.

That he only partly succeeds is due to the fact that Bicke is representative of not much apart from his own bundle of problems and neuroses.

Mueller's film opens with that device so beloved of indie filmmakers today, the "bookend," where the opening scene dovetails from the end of the story. Here we see Sam Bicke, played by Sean Penn in hangdog mode, ranting into a tape recorder a "statement" that will explain his actions: "I am a grain of sand. And the action that I am about to take will show the powerful that even the least grain of sand has the power to destroy them." He puts the tape in an envelope addressed to conductor Leonard Bernstein -- whose music Bicke feels is "pure and honest" -- packs his gun, and makes his way to the airport terminal and his destiny.

Then the film takes a two-week jump back in time, to show us why Bicke's so royally pissed off. We see Bicke at work in his new job at a furniture store, selling Naugahyde upholstered easy chairs and such. Bicke is a poor salesman; his problem is he's too honest. His garrulous boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson in a perfectly obnoxious performance), tries to shape Bicke in his own image, giving him self-help books by Dale Carnegie ("How to Win Friends and Influence People") and imparting his own philosophy: "I can believe in anything."

The specter of Nixon makes its first appearance on a TV in Jack's office -- a press conference where Nixon's speaking of ending the war in Vietnam. Jack smiles approvingly, noting Nixon's second electoral victory, and saying, "He's the greatest salesman in the world. He made a promise, didn't deliver, then sold us on the exact same promise again." But Bicke looks less than sure.

This poor shlep is using his salary to pay back a debt to his businessman brother, Julius (Michael Wincott), and also to support his estranged wife, Marie (Naomi Watts), who's separated from him.

Bicke's only friend is auto-mechanic Bonny (Don Cheadle), though it's a friendship that seems strained. Bicke has some sort of sense of solidarity with the oppressed, which is what Bonny -- a black man -- represents to him. Bonny, however, is far more pragmatic. When Bicke rebukes him for putting up with mildly rude or racist customers, Bonny replies, "All the rights shit, man. It's a job. We all gotta work somehow."

Bicke resents a system where it's the cheaters -- like his boss or Nixon -- who get ahead, while the little guy gets screwed. Still, it wasn't "The Man" who wrecked his marriage; it's clear that much of the problem is Bicke himself.

Penn plays the guy with a pathetic sincerity, his cheery optimism an obvious front, covering a desperation and sense of victimization that's scary when it seeps out. In one scene, where he's at Bonny's house and won't stop hugging his friend's child, it is quite disturbing. Another, where he goes by a local chapter of the Black Panthers and urges them to integrate -- and become "The Zebras" -- is fairly hilarious, while also revealing how many dimes short of a dollar this guy is.

This is almost a one-man show for Penn, who gets to try on aggrieved ranting and pleading in 10 different forms. While an accomplished actor, the character of Bicke, as written, is too pathetic and confused to sustain such an unblinking focus. The result comes off as self-indulgence.

On a certain level, Mueller's film is a fairly accurate portrait of the kind of personality that's apt to snap and "go postal," the little man who seeks to prove his existence with a gun. The problem comes, though, that this funny/scary character, bent on assassinating a politician as some sort of solution to the excesses of the 1970s, has been done before, and better, in Martin Scorsese's seminal "Taxi Driver," back in 1976.

This feeling is compounded by scenes where Sam Bicke seems to directly echo Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle character in "Taxi Driver." Whether he's talking to himself in the mirror ("Hi! Good to see you!"), glaring in rage at the TV, or bungling his assassination attempt, the performance constantly recalls De Niro's more intense and iconic turn in "Taxi Driver."

That film, moreover, built to an apocalyptic intensity, before leaving us with an ironic coda that accentuated the thin line between heroism and insanity. Mueller's film just seems to peter out, with a sad coda that suggests only that this loser's last attempt at gaining attention was just one more screw-up that left no impact.

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