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Reviews in Retrospect: The Assassination of Richard Nixon

A haunting story of the pursuit of individuality and personal truth that ultimately ends in madness.

Assassination of richard nixon still film

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004) was inspired by a real-life attempt on the life of President Nixon by Samuel J Byck in 1974, renamed to ‘Bicke’ for the film.

In the narrative of the two weeks leading up to the incident, Bicke’s (Sean Penn’s) portentous voiceover records his impassioned message to Leonard Bernstein (ironically, mistaking the musician with the politician) as he moves towards the conclusion of this tale of inevitable doom.

Penn’s virtuoso performance, as an anguished man whose deeply-held values conflict with his aspirations to the American Dream, is well supported by that of Naomi Watts as his estranged wife. Marie’s need for security is at odds with Sam’s drive to individualise. Clinging to their children, his struggle to become a top salesman finds his moral code compromised. Penn’s every nuanced facial muscle reflects this inner conflict.

Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), as Sam’s only friend and potential business partner, plays the part of a black man accustomed to endemic prejudice, earning a living to support his family. His attempts to moderate Sam’s anger at the system are unproductive. Sam is a loner, an outsider who won’t— or can’t—play the game that society demands of him.

Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), his eager son Martin (Brad William Henke), and Sam’s estranged brother Julius (Michael Wincott), have all bought into that game. Selling within the context of the social contract is portrayed as an expression of self-belief, rather than the selling of one’s soul, which is Sam’s overriding experience.

The political context of Nixon’s second term in office—re-selling the nation a promise that he has already failed once to deliver—is seen by the game-players as the salesman par excellence, proof that self-belief, not truth, is the route to success.

When Bicke fails to secure a bank loan because, he believes, his business partner is black, we recall an earlier scene in which his attempt to join the Black Panthers is refused. Sam identifies as being similarly oppressed and this rejection further deepens his alienation. Meanwhile, his growing obsession with Nixon builds into a frenzy.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is an exposition of US society’s mechanisms, Byke’s inner logic and, most persuasively, a desperate diary chartering a journey from hope to despair.

The film begins at the story’s ending, with Bicke’s words: “Tell them my reasons. Tell them why.” The jury, as ever, must be the audience.

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