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THE ASSASSINATION OF RICHARD NIXON

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle, Jack Thompson, Michael Wincott
Director: Niels Mueller
Audio: English 2.0 stereo or 5.1 surround
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: New Line
Features: Trailers
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: April 26, 2005

"That is a salesman.  He made a promise.  He didn't deliver.  And then he sold us on the same exact promise all over again."

Film ***

America.  Land of the free and the home of the brave.  A great Melting Pot where equal opportunity is guaranteed to all, regardless of creed or culture.  The Great American Dream awaits anyone with the perseverance and drive to succeed.

At least, in an idealized world, all this would be true.  Reality, particularly for one Sam Bicke, is not so very rosy.  And on February 22, 1974, the cumulative heartbreaks and crises in his life drive this disillusioned man to strike out against the sole individual who in his eyes has become the very embodiment of everything wrong or dishonest with "the system."  When one has lost everything and has nothing for which to live, there are no further barriers to any actions.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) documents Sam Bicke's fall from grace over a period of one year.  Sam makes some poor decisions during this time, decisions which only serve to throw his public and private life into worsening disarray.  All his hopes and aspirations invariably lead to disappointment, and while Sam has some inadequacies, he begins to ponder whether socioeconomic forces beyond his control are in part responsible for his plight.  Sam sees himself as an oppressed individual denied his fair chance.  He even identifies with the Black Panthers' fight against discrimination, at one point suggesting a ludicrous new name - the Zebras - so that disillusioned white males might also be incorporated into the brotherhood of the Black Panthers.

Sam Bicke is not a particularly bad person, merely one of middling intelligence.  His meek nature - he regularly stumbles over his words when anxious - makes him somewhat ill-suited for his current vocation as salesman, even if Sam prides himself on his honesty, integrity, and open-mindedness.  His boss, a furniture store owner whose secret to success is an uncanny ability to project an air of absolute self-confidence and to sweet-talk customers into purchasing anything, is determined to mold Sam into a carbon copy of himself.  Sam, however, privately equates being a successful salesman with being a compulsive liar and not surprisingly feels some dissatisfaction with his current job.

Nevertheless, Sam stays on, striving to please his boss for the sake of a family life already in tatters.  For the past year, Sam has been separated from his wife (Naomi Watts), who he still loves but who no longer cares for him.  His past inability to hold steady employment having been a source of family discourse, Sam believes that if he can perform well as a salesman, perhaps his wife might return to him.  Sam's efforts are in vain and miss the broader spectrum of irreconcilable differences in his broken marriage.  His various visits to his former home, as he glances longingly about at familiar objects or even his own children, are almost heart-breaking to watch.

Outside of his immediate if estranged family, Sam has little else.  His relationship with his own more successful brother is strained and only worsens as time progresses.  Sam's one true friend, a black auto mechanic (Don Cheadle), tolerates Sam's idiosyncrasies but has little faith in his grand ideas, the latest one involving a private mobile tire business.  By being his own boss, Sam hopes to live by his own standards and to evade the hypocrisies, real or imagined, he senses all about him.  Sadly, the red tape Sam encounters in attempting to procure a small business loan only serves to fuel his growing feeling of betrayal or persecution by a flawed system apparently designed to prevent him from improving his lot in life.

In truth, Sam's plans are not poorly-conceived, but he simply lacks the capacity or self-confidence to execute them properly or to sell other people on his ideas.  In a sense, Sam is equally a victim of circumstances as of his own personal demons.  He is the Hitchcockian wrong man taken to a darker nth degree, and whatever trace of optimism exists at the start of The Assassination of Richard Nixon has long dissipated by its conclusion.  Alone, disheartened, and angry, Sam is reduced eventually to a shadow of a man struggling to cling to what little shreds of dignity or happiness he still retains.  When even his own integrity and honesty are taken from him, Sam has nothing, absolutely nothing, with no one who truly loves or cares for him in a life fallen irreparably apart.

So once again, the recurring motif of the "salesman" appears.  Such people and their lies are what have destroyed his life, this much Sam Bicke truly believes.  Politicians are salesmen and therefore liars, merely on a larger scale than furniture retails, and the greatest liar of them all is the American President.  On February 22, 1974, Sam Bicke boards a plane at BWI Airport in Maryland, armed with a handgun.  He intends to hijack the plane and to crash it into the White House, killing Richard Nixon.

As with all of Bicke's plans, this one becomes merely another abortive failure.

Title notwithstanding, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is not a suspense thriller.  Rather, the film is strictly an intense character study about a middle-aged man who fails miserably at life.  As Sam Bicke, Sean Penn delivers a powerful performance that is painfully depressing at times to watch but always compelling.  While all the principal actors in this film are quite excellent, Penn in particularly is utterly convincing as a desperate man deserving of some pity for the circumstances of his life, if not his final misguided deed.

It is a horrible thought to sense that one's life has been utterly devoid of meaning.  It represents the ultimate nightmare, the collapse of the American Dream.  The Assassination of Richard Nixon concludes with indifferent television bulletins reporting the attempted hijack.  Sam had convinced himself of the righteousness of his itinerary for that fateful day.  He had been so sure that America would never be quite the same again, that perhaps his act of self-sacrifice would lend some substance to an otherwise failed life.  Yet for all his self-delusion, in the end, his very existence, to use Sam's own analogy, was reduced to the significance of a grain of sand upon a vast beach.  His life and his final act were sounds of thunder, signifying nothing.  No one mourns for his fate, no one remembers him, neither friend nor family, and with time, even his name will be forgotten, an obscure footnote in history.

Video ***

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format.  Colors are muted in a washed-out grey palette.  A mildly grainy texture to the picture lends a pseudo-documentary look to the film.  This is otherwise a solid transfer.

Audio ****

Audio options include English 2.0 stereo sound or 5.1 surround sound.  For the most part, this film is dialogue-driven, although intentional sound distortions or excerpts of Beethoven music are used intermittently to reference Sam Bicke's disintegrating state of mind.

Features *

The Assassination of Richard Nixon was inspired by actual events.  Regrettably, there is nothing on this disc that addresses the historical context of the film or the life of the real Samuel Joseph Byck.  The only bonus features on this DVD are trailers for the thriller Primer and Academy Award-nominated drama Vera Drake.

Summary:

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a totally depressing film about the failure of one man's Great American Dream.  Unhappy middle-aged men might do well to avoid this film unless they require further incentive to jump off some bridge.  For everyone else in the mood for a tragic story, this film is a reflective and powerful drama suitable for a dark and rainy night.

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