I watched Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon because of Jodi’s recommendation. She’s right. It’s a great film. It’s set in 1973-74. Sean Penn plays Samuel Bicke, a failed salesman and would-be small businessman who resolves to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House to kill President Nixon (described early in the film as the world’s greatest salesman, because he sold himself to the American people twice, simply by having such a Norman Vincent Peale positive attitude that he believed in himself, believed his own lies). Of course, Sam’s plan fails miserably, as does everything he tries to do throughout the entire movie. It’s excruciating to watch Penn-as-Bicke slip ever more deeply into his own delusions. Except they aren’t delusions, exactly. Sam simply believes in what we are all taught to believe in: decency, honesty, and the American way. He thinks that if he’s only earnest and forthright enough, everything will go his way and he will be a success. This faith leads, of course, to one humiliation after another.
Sam approaches everybody, whether in his personal life or in sales, with a Dale Carnegie upbeat attitude that invariably comes off as totally forced and phony, precisely because he means it sincerely and as a result he isn’t manipulative enough to be good at making it seem convincing. He can’t hold a job, because he’s actually offended at all the demeaning and dishonest things one must do in order to satisfy the tyrannical whims and business plans of one’s bosses: how can people do such things as wear a stupid uniform (as his ex-wife does) for a job as a cocktail waitress? or lie to the customers in order to make a sale? or take abuse from a disgruntled, and probably racist client (as his black friend, played by the great Don Cheadle, does in his auto repair shop)? or shave off his mustache so that he will have the right “look” for the office? He can’t accept everyone else’s common-sense observations that you do these things because you’ve got to make a living.
Similarly, Sam can’t accept that his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) has dumped him, because he believes so strongly in the nuclear-family-with-suburban-home-and-three-kids-and-a-dog myth that he’s unable to conceive that anything could ever possibly go wrong with it. Sam even admires the Black Panthers, because they are standing up for the human decency and respect that everybody ought to have (in one great scene, he visits the local Panther headquarters in order to contribute some money, and urge them to transform themselves into the “Zebras,” so that they could admit to their ranks downtrodden white guys such as himself). In short, Sam believes in the petit-bourgeois values that we Americans all cannot help believing in — and that Nixon himself embodied more than anybody (as my friend Carl Freedman’s forthcoming book on Nixon makes abundantly clear) — except that Sam somehow lacks the hypocrisy that allows the rest of us (from Nixon on down) actually to function in the world despite holding such ideals, and that allows the ideals to function ideologically despite their hollowness and falsity. We all “know” that of course the American vision of equal opportunity doesn’t really mean that the Black Panthers’ protests were entirely justified; only Sam can’t see this. Zizek would say that Sam undermines the ideology that he believes in by overidentifying with it. Sam’s lack of hypocrisy, his true belief, is what makes him clinically crazy and delusional.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon works largely on the basis of Penn’s brilliant performance: it’s rare to see a star so unreservedly taking on a role that is so utterly unredemptive and painfully abject. The script also has the courage and tenacity to pursue its cringe-worthy vision to the bitter end. Several reviews I’ve read have depicted the film as a lesser imitation of Taxi Driver; but such a comparison seems to me to be totally off the mark. Though both films narrate the story of a deranged white guy (whose name starts with “Bick..”) who tries to solve his personal traumas through political assassination, Penn-as-Bicke has none of DeNiro-as-Bickle’s grandiosity or messianic drive or quasi-fascist obsession with purity and moral decay; and Mueller has none of Scorsese’s obsessions about masculinity (or Paul Schraeder’s about sin and redemption). The Assassination of Richard Nixon is political in a way that Taxi Driver is not. And it doesn’t offer its audience a way out from its abject vision; Taxi Driver comes off as downright comforting in comparison.