April 20, 2005 -- “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” is a movie about a man who is so unwilling to compromise his principles that he thinks he has to kill the president to improve the nation. Based on a true story, Samuel Bicke's idea 31 years ago was to hijack a jetliner and crash it into the White House. He failed, but on September 11, 2001 other men, just as sure they were doing the right thing, carried out a successful plan very much like the plan hatched by Bicke in 1974.
Samuel Bicke is played in this film by Sean Penn (Mystic River), who gives a stunning performance as this tortured soul. Bicke is a salesman by trade, but he is even more poorly suited for it than Willie Loman was. Bicke hates the fact that in order to be a top-notch salesman, he has to lie. He wants to tell customers the truth. If he can't do that, he doesn't want to sell anything. That attitude cost him his job at the tire shop owned by his brother. He is close to losing his job at the furniture store where we works as a salesman. One day his boss, Jack Jones (wonderfully played by Jack Thompson) tells him that Richard Nixon is a great salesman because he ran twice on the same promise of getting the U.S. out of the Vietnam war, despite not delivering on the promise in his first term. In fact, he sent over 100,000 more troops to Vietnam.
Bicke has a dream of running his own tire business. He applies for a small business loan. His partner in the tire business is his friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle of “Hotel Rwanda”) who runs his own repair shop. Simmons takes Bicke's constant complaining about the injustices in America with a grain of salt. As a black businessman, he faces a lot tougher obstacles than Bicke does. Bicke's wife, Marie (Naomi Watts of “21 Grams”) has given up on Bicke. She has a lot of trouble raising her children with little help from her husband. She wouldn't mind her husband's complaining about her wearing short skirts to her waitressing job if he paid more support money. The two are separated, soon to be divorced. Bicke wants her back desperately, but she is slipping away. Bicke believes the reason he is losing her is because of money, but it is more than that. Bicke is losing his mind.
Bicke's life goes steadily downhill. Soon, he fixes upon the looney idea of hijacking an airliner and destroying the White House, with master salesman Richard Nixon inside. He would rather die as an infamous mass murderer than live as an anonymous loser.
How did such a harmless little man as Bicke become so dangerous? It could be, as the movie suggests, a perversion of the American dream. Bicke believed his troubles would be over if he had lots of money. A lot of people believe that, even though it isn't true. That is part of the myth of the American dream. When he isn't able to gain riches, he decides to make his mark on society in a grotesquely murderous way.
Another view is that Bicke was so sure that he was right, and everyone else was wrong, that he felt that mass murder was justified so that he could set things right. He felt that America was corrupt and that drastic action was needed to correct the situation. This same view was held by the September 11 hijackers and the Oklahoma City bombers. They are all true believers. Nothing is more dangerous than a true believer, especially ones who don't mind trampling on other people to achieve their goals. Witness the violent neo-Nazi radical organizations, the violent radical left-wing organizations of the 1960s and 1970s and the Islamic extremists who have killed thousands of people around the world.
This movie provides a lot of food for thought along these lines, especially now that true believers are trying to forge a system in which all three branches of government are brought under the control of a single political party. This party is closely aligned both with a peculiarly intolerant, repressive, elitist system of evangelical beliefs, and with major corporations. Both the true believers and the corporations have their own political agendas. Are these agendas good for the country? If you believe they are, maybe you'd like to buy the Brooklyn Bridge. I'll sell it to you cheap. The current political situation in this country is perfect for the creation of millions of monsters like Samuel Bicke all over the world. Oh yeah, and George Bush is a much better salesman than Richard Nixon ever was. This film rates a B.
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