Remarkable performance by Sean Penn The movie is an intense focus on Sean Penn doing a sympathetic character study of a nut job named Samuel J. Bicke, a failed salesman who manages to lose at everything he does. He is a salesman who believes you shouldn't lie to make a sale. The only thing more ridiculous would be a lawyer who believes you shouldn't lie to win a case. I had a friend once who was a bit of a nut job like Bicke who said he never lied. To maintain this fiction he lied to himself. It was the only way he could continue to think he never lied. Such ideas ("a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"--from Thoreau--is ironically similar) are the stuff of inflexible minds unable to adjust to the vagaries of humanity and to a world that is not rigidly set in black and white. Bicke lived surrounded by a cloud of his own making, a cloud that kept him from seeing the world in a realistic way, so that instead he saw things through the shroud of his personal delusions.
Sean Penn, in a virtuoso performance, makes us sympathize with Bicke's character. Bicke fails at his marriage and yet he has no idea why. It seems that his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) has cut him off from her and from his children (and even the dog) because she wants to move on to somebody better; yet we know he is unstable and unable to understand how he has fails her. And so she really does need to be rid of him. He also fails as a salesman, and then he fails as an entrepreneur. He is lost and desperate. And all the while there is Richard Milhous Nixon on the tube lying to the American people, the same Richard Nixon that Bicke's boss holds up as a shining example of a great salesman, the kind of man that Bicke could never be.
It is remarkable that Sean Penn was able to so convincingly portray such a character since he himself is nothing like the poor pathetic Bicke. Penn has a winning personality, is charismatic and attractive. Very few women would give up on him as Marie gives up on Bicke. I mention this because if you know people you know that people like Penn and arguably Mel Gibson who played a somewhat similar role in Conspiracy Theory (1997), could never be one of the Bickes of the world since the world loves them too much. It is only life's losers that become the crazies who do the things that Bicke does. They feel so much like failures and have such low self-esteem that they are desperate to do anything to gain some kind of emotional equilibrium. Penn worked hard on the role, and I thought he gave the kind of performance that would be the highlight of any actor's career. But again, it was just so hard to not notice that this guy in the move named Bicke was in fact Sean Penn.
The theme of the salesman as a tragic figure is an America staple. I am thinking of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross in which we see men who make a living by doing something they themselves respect only as an exploitive competition. Here we have Jack Thompson (in a nice supporting role) as Jack Jones, furniture salesman, handing motivational books by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale to Bicke in an effort to get Bicke up to speed on how to sell by selling himself. I once knew a salesman who told me that the thing to remember is "you are always selling love. If you can do that, you will be a success."
I think director Niels Mueller did a good job of putting this story together. It is an offbeat vehicle for Sean Penn, but the movie goes beyond his performance to examine the shallow, cold and corrupt values of our society that prevailed during the Nixon administration and have led some years down the road to the George W. Bush administration (only two days left as it write this!). I hope that Mueller gets another chance to do something as interesting with a similarly excellent cast.
A film too small for Sean Penn, better off watching Milk Sam Bicke is a failure. His marriage, job, business idea and relationships have left an initially pathetic man quite bitter. This movie is not about Nixon, his presidency or politics. It is about what leads people to take matters into their own hands.
The ending offers no surprise. We know the Nixon presidency ended in resignation, not assassination. Director Niels Mueller leaves us precious little to hang onto as the film meanders for 90 minutes. Sean Penn is solid as the would-be lone assassin, while the supporting cast (Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts) never has enough screen time to impress. Only Jack Jones is memorable as Sam's boss at the furniture company.
Recurring themes of isolation and powerlessness in society have been done before, to better effect by directors Gus Van Sant and Larry Clark. While the film does a fair job of capturing a microcosm of the nation in 1973, the film is not strong enough to sustain interest of a casual audience. From the first desperate glimpse we get at the main character, we understand this film is going to be a long ride.Underrated I picked up a cheap used version of The Assassination Of Richard Nixon simply because I spent much of my youth listening to my dad yell at the 37th President during the years of the Watergate scandal, and figured that there might be some posthumous vicarious thrill that he could glean from my watching such a film with such a title. To my surprise, the film was not a cheesy exploitative film, but a latter day attempt to reframe some of the very same issues that Martin Scorsese's Travis Bickle dealt with in his 1976 film Taxi Driver, which ironically inspired a real life assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Thus, this 2004 film, directed by newby Niels Mueller, and written by Mueller and Kevin Kennedy, is the closing of a circle that began with the real like case of Sam Byck, a 44 year old man who in 1974 tried to hijack an airplane and fly it into the White House. The post-9/11 relevance of this act, and this film's capture of it, is manifest. Not to mention that this tale of Bycke, renamed for the film's purposes as Bicke (to make it more closely resemble Bickle, as rumor has it that Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader named his fictive character after hearing of the Byck hijack attempt.... That this subtle, well acted, and well written political film was lost, and appears on a bare bones DVD with no features, while Michael Moore's mockumentary Fahrenheit 9/11 got Oscar buzz, only shows how dimwitted the American public is. The only slight negatives are the anachronistic use of modern airport technology, such as security equipment and moving walkway, and the last scene, which shows a still alive Sam playing with a toy plane- the attempted symbolism is muddy and superfluous. Overall, though, this is an excellent film. Early on, Sam moans that a man does not stop being a man when he's at his job. Equally true is that neither does he stop being a man when he's frustrated. Knowing the former does not prevent the latter, but it does allow a terrific film to be made in the interstice between the two.No place in the sun, just where toadstools grow Imagine Neils Muller's directorial debut with Sean Penn as his lead actor! Also the co-scriptwriter, Muller must have had Penn in mind from the inception to recreate the deteriorating life of real-life Samuel Bycke, who in 1974 tried to hijack an airplane for the sole purpose of crashing into the White House and killing Richard Nixon.
Why? Therein lies the story. Bicke is one of those pathetic individuals who cannot succeed because of a personality disorder. That pathos eventually morphs into desperation. Lives of quiet desperation can easily turn into very noisy, very violent lives. This turn is equivalent to the relational stalker who kills his beloved rather than let someone else have her. A desperate man must do desperate things. At one point he feels so powerless, he attempts to join the Black Panthers.
Why Richard Nixon? Bick abhors dishonesty of any kind. When his boss, a furniture store owner, tells him Richard Nixon is the best salesman in the world, Bick records that information on his heart and mind. Nixon lied to get elected and reelected.
Forget Sean Penn's politics. When the man is on-screen, only his acting should be held accountable. In this role he plays the distorted, unstable personality who gradually descends into total alienation, inch by foot until he reaches the point of no return. The most stirring scene is Penn's cry of impotence and rage in a world where he has no place.
Did Mueller and Penn collaborate? Or did one man predominate? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Their depiction of a man who loses his tenuous hold on reality is a minor classic.
"I was here, Maestro.." "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is one of the more impacting films I've seen in recent years, but if you're not an admirer of psychological drama it's best to stay far, far away.
The tragic tale of Samuel Byck is deeply entwined with the anguish and outrage of the late 1960's and the still tense era of the early 1970's. An unemployed tire salesman who suffered from deep depression and could not succeed in any area of his life, he turned his sights on the powers that be, who were as hateable then as they are now: Tricky Dick was bombing anything on the map and Robert McNamara was lying as easily as he breathed. While Byck's problems were mostly personal, his documented conspiratorial "fantasies" about the government oppressing the poor don't seem too insane to me.
Penn gives a stunning performance as Byck sinks lower and lower into loneliness, disillusionment, and finally full blown madness. His inappropriate social affect, self consciousness, and the desolate conditions of his life (Naomi Watts plays perhaps the ultimate villain: Byck's icy girlfriend) all spill over into an assassination attempt and violent rampage.
There are moments in this film which are touching, albeit in an extremely sad way. At one point, Penn's Byck is determined to kill his boss for firing him--when he arrives at the restaurant sweating like a pig with a pistol concealed, his boss consoles him momentarily: "It was nothing personal. Here, take this, wipe yourself off. You okay?"
Though ultimately a murderer, Penn's compassionate performance sheds light on some of Byck's better qualities. At one point he is so determined to do something about the racial divide between whites and blacks that he bursts into a Black Panthers' meeting room, and encourages the leader to start a new group called: "Zebras". His treatment of his frequently abused black co-worker is a good example of what he might have been had he not chosen such a rageful response to a dismal state of affairs.
The movie is pretty bleak and the ending is even worse. Sean Penn just gets better and better as an actor, and he skillfully reflects all sides of this tragic and malevolent character. A must see!