Assassination of Richard Nixon, The

In 1973 a deranged young man named Sam Byck, disappointed in life and love and thinking, like Arthur Bremer before him or Mark David Chapman or John Hinckley after him, to make his mark in the world by killing a celebrity, set out to assassinate President Richard Nixon. He never got further than Baltimore-Washington airport, where his intention was to hijack a plane and crash it into the White House. Panicking at a security check, he ran on board the aircraft, shot a pilot and a flight attendant and then took his own life. No one would even have remembered this sad incident, let alone thought — as Niels Mueller (director), Kevin Kennedy (co-writer) and Sean Penn (star) did — to make a movie out of it, if it were not for three things. First, the proposed method of this act of political terrorism bears a striking resemblance that of 9/11. Second, the newly Oscar-heavy Mr Penn obviously saw the role of Byck — or Bicke as, for some reason, they rename him here — as an acting job he could get his teeth into. Third, Nixon’s reputation even a decade after his death still stands so low that there is little danger of movie audiences’ finding him more sympathetic than his would-be assassin.

This last point is an especially important one. Just think of the outcry that would greet any cinematic attempt to glorify Lee Harvey Oswald — or even Sarah Jane Moore or Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, whose assassination attempts against Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, were equally unsuccessful. Byck/Bicke was at least as pathetic a loser as they, and what he proposed to do at least as much of a threat to democracy and civil government, but the unpopularity of his target makes The Assassination of Richard Nixon a movie to appeal to the intellectual classes who were prepared to take seriously Nicholson Baker’s novel Checkpoint, about the proposed assassination of George W. Bush.

Mr Penn’s Sam Bicke is clearly a fantasist who suffers from what a new book by Albert Borowitz (Terrorism for Self-Glorification, Kent State University Press, $29.95) calls “The Herostratos Syndrome.” Herostratos was in ancient times the man who was said to have burnt the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, simply in order to become famous. So too Sam says: “They can rebuild the White House, but they will not forget me.” Having been divorced from his wife (Naomi Watts) and fired from his job and believing that “a man is only remembered for his work” — his work? — he decides that even he can “make a difference” in the world. “If you destroy the seat of government, then you have made a change, a real change, and I’m going to do it.”

Are we meant to take such nonsense seriously? I’m very much afraid that we are. What is the point of a film like this if it is not precisely to validate this vile man’s self-flattering view of his “work” and thus of his own importance? It’s true that the film tries to be more subtle than this. Sam is seen not exactly as a hero but as a victim of “the system” — also known as business or possibly “capitalism” — which requires people to lie and cheat. Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), Sam’s boss at the office furniture store where he works as a salesman, is perhaps the most important influence on him when he refers to Nixon as the world’s greatest salesman. Having won in 1968 by promising to get the U.S. out of Vietnam, he won again in 1972 even though the U.S was still very much there. “He sold us on the exact same promise all over again,” says Jack. “That’s believing in yourself!”

If this were true, which it’s not — Nixon only claimed to have a “plan,” called “Vietnamization,” for extrication of US troops from Vietnam, and he put it into effect — it would not be believing in oneself but believing in fantasy, and the film proceeds to make the same easy and false equation between the two things throughout. Thus all Sam’s futile attempts to make himself a salesman with the help of Dale Carnegie and postive thinking are seen as only reinforcing the “lie” he is attempting to live and preparing the ground for his lashing out against Nixon when finally, inevitably, he repudiates it. But he does so still in the grip of the notion that “You have as much power as you believe you have” and so as Carnegie’s ultimate disciple.

Some ideas, as life constantly reminds us Orwell once said, are so stupid that only an intellectual could believe them. Among such ideas we may now number that which would equate salesmanship with paranoid delusion. But then Sean Penn doesn’t really care about ideas, only the chance to show off yet again as one of the great victim-heroes of our times.

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