Going down in history in flames



Sean Penn plays the would-be Nixon assassin Samuel Bicke as a frustrated Willy Loman, trying to "show the powerful that even the least grain of sand has in him the power to destroy them," in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.

Almost 30 years before 9/11, a desperate tire salesman tried to take out Nixon with TWA Flight 523

The possibility of someone deliberately crashing a hijacked airliner into a building, insisted officials who might have averted 9/11, had been inconceivable. Yet 27 years earlier, a disaffected tire salesman had conceived of just that. On February 22, 1974, Samuel Byck boarded a flight at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport but was shot dead before he could aim the plane at the White House and its elected resident, Richard Nixon.

Announcing that it is "inspired by a true story," The Assassination of Richard Nixon changes a few of the details of the Byck case, including the spelling of the would-be assassin's name to Bicke. But the film is generally faithful to the historical record. The 37th president of the United States was not assassinated, and he survives the events on screen. Despite its title, neither assassination nor Nixon is the true subject of this film. The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a study in disillusion and disaffection, in how a human cipher proclaims to the world that he exists.

"I consider myself a grain of sand," Samuel Bicke tells the microphone. "The action I am about to take will show the powerful that even the least grain of sand has in him the power to destroy them." In the opening scene and again at the end, Bicke is speaking into an audiotape that he mails to Leonard Bernstein so that the famous musician will understand how and why a stranger died. Most of the film is a flashback to explain how Bicke came to board TWA Flight 523 with the intent to commandeer it into the Executive Mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

"All I want is a little piece of the American Dream," says Bicke, but he has not found it working in his brother's tire shop. We find Bicke taking on a new job in a furniture showroom. His boss, Jack Jones (Thompson), is an effusive evangelist of salesmanship, and, critiquing his new employee's style, arms him with motivational tapes and copies of The Power of Positive Thinking and How to Win Friends and Influence People. Jack continues his own pep talk over dinner and, pointing to the image of Richard Nixon on the restaurant's TV screen, declares: "That man there is the greatest salesman in the world."

   The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Dir. Neils Mueller; writ. Mueller, Kevin Kennedy;
feat. Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson (R)

But Bicke himself is a loser, no more adept at closing a deal than sustaining a marriage. Separated from his exasperated wife, Marie (Watts), and their two daughters for almost a year, he cannot acknowledge the inevitability of divorce. Bicke is a self-deceiving fumbler whose preposterous plans for a partnership with his only friend, Bonny (Cheadle) - a roving tire firm operated out of a converted school bus - seem no more plausible to loan administrators at the Small Business Administration than they do to the viewer. Bicke is a man with pie-in-the-sky dreams that boomerang as pie in the face.

In Mystic River, Sean Penn played Jimmy Markum, a grieving, raging bull who orchestrates his vengeance against the man he believes murdered his daughter. While Markum is a flamboyant personality who dominates his Boston neighborhood, Penn plays Bicke as virtually invisible. He is Willy Loman struggling to establish his place in the universe by convincing a customer to buy a Naugahyde chair. Penn's Bicke is a seething bundle of resentments against a world that is indifferent to his aspirations and his presence. Incapable of abiding deceit in others (including and especially the president of the United States, exposed by Watergate as a liar), he fails to discern his own dishonesty.

Bicke disguises his naivete as idealism, and its collision with the complexities of the real world is violent. It is also, for much of the film, comic, in the same way that daffy Don Quixote sallying forth to vanquish evil is ludicrous, if not lunatic. Upset by TV coverage of racial problems, Bicke shows up at the local office of the Black Panther Party with a donation of $107 and a plan to make the organization more effective by transforming it into an animal both black and white. "Let the Black Panthers become zebras," the white stranger advises a stunned militant, "and membership will double."

In 356 B.C., a man named Erostratus set fire to the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the wonders of the ancient world. He fulfilled his objective, to make a name for himself, since it is Erostratus who history remembers and not the architect whose temple he destroyed. Penn's Bicke is an American Erostratus, a nebbish who would overcome anonymity through one final, redemptive act of transcendent violence. "They will never forget me, not ever," he tells the tape. "I was here. I did this." Bungling even that, he is unforgettable only through the power of Mueller's film.

Too relevant

Niels Mueller struggled to finance 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' in the wake of 9/11

By Steven G. Kellman

The events of September 11, 2001 did not inspire the screenplay that Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy wrote for The Assassination of Richard Nixon. During a telephone conversation with the Current, Mueller, who also directed the film, noted that the screenplay was completed in 1999. But the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon strongly affected how potential backers reacted to his story. "Before, the reaction was: 'What a hare-brained scheme.' After, they said: 'Love the script, but we've gotta change the ending.'"

Mueller refused to change the script. That The Assassination of Richard Nixon is about a man who planned to crash a plane into the White House made it more relevant than ever after 9/11, but Mueller discovered that "Relevance has an inverse relationship to financibility." Studio people were wary of films that seemed too timely. He also discovered how hard it is to sell a script that lacks a happy resolution. Ultimately, though, Mueller's own quest to make this film ended happily ever after. "I got lucky the first time out," noted the novice director. "I got to make the kind of film I wanted to make."

Mueller previously wrote screenplays for Sweet Nothing and Tadpole and directed for some industrial films and television. He tapped into contacts made while studying at UCLA and enlisted several influential figures, including Alexander Payne, Alfonso Cuarón, and Leonardo DiCaprio, as executive producers. Tobey Maguire helped him approach Sean Penn. "I sent him the script on Wednesday, and on Friday he said yes." Signing up Penn, at a fraction of the actor's usual salary, made it much easier to cast the other roles and obtain funds.

The script began as pure fiction. "I was interested in writing about a guy whose assassination attempt is never noticed," Mueller recalled. At first, he imagined someone whose obsession with narrow notions of the American Dream lead him to target Lyndon Johnson. However, in the Los Angeles Public Library, he pored through books on presidential assassins and came upon the case of Samuel Byck. He and Kennedy researched further and, while making some changes to protect the privacy of their protagonist's surviving family, developed a screenplay based on an undistingished man with delusions that killing Nixon would bring him grandeur.

At the time, Mueller was not aware of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins, a musical rogue's gallery of men and women who have attempted to murder American presidents. In Sondheim's work, which Mueller still has not seen, Nixon's stalker wears a Santa Claus suit, as did his real-life prototype, while picketing the White House. Mueller knows about the incident and in fact originally wrote that scene into the script, but it never made it onto the screen. "We didn't have enough money to go to Washington," he explains.

Because, according to Mueller, "Time has stood still in Oakland," he used sites in northern California to represent Pennsylvania 30 years ago. The location was also a convenience for Penn, who was able to remain close to home while working. "There was a great level of intensity on the set," Mueller recalled. "We all felt this was going to be something really special." While praising the performances of Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, and Jack Thompson, the director singled out his lead actor: "I really hope that people see Sean's performance. For my money, it is at least as great as anything he has ever done."

Mueller and money are on better speaking terms after his first feature encountered an enthusiastic reception on the festival circuit and in Europe. Though he has been offered scripts to direct, he is most intent on developing an ensemble drama set in his home town, Milwaukee. It is also the home of John F. Schrank, the saloon-keeper who shot and wounded Theodore Roosevelt, but that is another story.

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