The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Director: Niels Mueller

U.S.A.| 2004. Colour.

In 1974, one Samuel J Bicke planned to leave his mark on the world by hijacking a commercial airliner and flying it into the White House. That he’s barely remembered in the post-9/11 world indicates he fell far short of his aims, but this speculative fiction woven around the known facts of the case gives this would-be assassin his long-delayed moment in the spotlight. Sean Penn is at his wormiest as the failing office furniture salesman patronised by his slick boss (Jack Thompson), all the while kidding himself that he can salvage his relationship with his estranged spouse (Naomi Watts) or make good on his ambitious business plans with his car mechanic best buddy (Don Cheadle). Seething with frustration at his modest portion of the American Dream, Bicke searches for a scapegoat and finds it in the ever-present features of the nation’s confidence trickster number one, twice-returned US President Nixon.
Although the surname Bicke immediately springs connections to Taxi Driver protagonist Travis Bickle, there’s perhaps even more of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in this anguished and embittered salesman, while director Niels Mueller’s first feature is also strongly tied to the polarised US body politic of the time. Bicke’s play to join the Black Panthers is a most amusing set-piece, but it asks a question with continuing relevance in Dubya’s second term: where are the outlets for opposition to the system? Arguably, the movie is slightly guilty of labouring the point in the middle, but it rallies for a tense finale—boosted by enterprising use of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto—as Bicke puts his twisted yet somehow understandable logic into action. Provocative stuff, and Penn is terrific in the part.

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