Penn shines in tale of would-be presidential assassin

Jason LeRoy

‘Richard Nixon’ a humanizing tale of an American terrorist

Jason LeRoy

Daily Kent Stater

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, people around the world reeled with shock as they contemplated just what sort of human being was capable of such a horrifying deed.

Many seemed to take comfort in the explanation that the perpetrators were Muslim extremists, as though that explained everything. After all, no red-blooded American patriot would ever think of flying an airplane into a government building (or so the dominant wisdom seemed to indicate).

However, writer/director Niels Mueller challenges that notion with his directorial debut, The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

The film, taking place in 1974 and based on a true story, stars Sean Penn as Samuel Bicke, your standard American everyman. He is a married, working-class white male who dreams of one day owning his own business. He has tremendous faith in the American dream, and an idealistic worldview that tells him he should be able to achieve that dream without lying or otherwise compromising himself.

However, Bicke is starting to get the sense that the world might not work the way he wants it to. He has recently separated from his wife, Marie (Naomi Watts, Penn’s co-star from 21 Grams), and is mourning the ever-increasing distance growing between him and his wife and three children.

He is also growing rapidly disillusioned with his new job as a furniture salesman, where he is forced to lie and otherwise distort the truth by his boss (Jack Thompson). Bicke begins to realize just how powerless he is in his society, and experiences some serious class conflict.

He identifies with the downtrodden and oppressed of the nation and finds himself immensely drawn to the Black Panther movement after hearing his developing thoughts on the brokenness of the American system echoed by a Panther on a television program. He makes a bold journey to his local Panther headquarters to express his solidarity to a skeptical activist (Mykelti Williamson).

Bicke insists that he and the Panthers are in the same boat, to which the Panther replies, “No. You own the boat.”

All the while, Bicke repeatedly finds himself staring at images of President Nixon. Having great faith in democracy, Bicke looks to Nixon for answers or assistance in his plight. Bicke’s boss rhapsodizes to him about how Nixon is the greatest salesman of them all, having sold himself to the American people twice without keeping any of his promises about Vietnam.

However, Bicke soon comes to associate Nixon with all that is going wrong in his life, and everything that is wrong with the system. And then he gets an idea.

Bicke finally realizes how he can make a difference, how he can demonstrate to the powers — that — be that one grain of sand can impact the whole beach. He decides to hijack an airplane and fly it into the White House, with the specific aim of assassinating Richard Nixon.

As Samuel Bicke, Sean Penn displays yet again why he is the world’s greatest living actor. He portrays Bicke as a meek and timid man who believes in decency and goodness no matter what, but with a very obvious streak of instability, which allows him to become a loose cannon.

After his force-of-nature turn in Mystic River, it is shocking to see Penn playing such a wimp (to be blunt). Penn and Mueller manage to make Bicke an entirely sympathetic character without condoning his actions as morally correct.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon obviously has the potential to be an incendiary and inflammatory piece of filmmaking, particularly with unofficial liberal spokesman Sean Penn playing the lead.

However, critics of the film should be aware that the script was actually written in the late 1990s, and Penn had signed on to play the lead before Dubya was even elected. So no matter how much the film can be read as an allegorical response to Sept. 11, this is not how it was originally intended.

Still, regardless of Mueller’s intentions, the film works quite powerfully as a psychological study of just how an otherwise sane, rational, “normal” man could be driven to commit such rash acts.

Essentially, all of what Sam Bicke does is a result of disappointed hope. This was a man with great faith and hope in the system, and when that faith is shown to be in vain, he decides to exercise the democratic power to affect change by any means necessary.


Contact pop arts reporter Jason LeRoy at [email protected].