Assassination of Richard Nixon, The

Written and Directed By Niels Mueller

Starring Sean Penn, Jack Thompson, Don Cheadle, Michael Wincott, Naomi Watts, Mykelti Williamson.

Lots of moviegoers universally believe film critics are wankers, always crapping on about the existential truth overturned by the latest auteur, complaining about the OFLC when they ban another movie with an image of a dick because it has artistic merit and preferring Truffaut and Fellini to Lucas and Spielberg.

But there’s a reason; when you see a lot of movies for a living, it’s soon clear how many of them are the same. They don’t make films for critics, they make them for teenage boys at the shopping centre who decide to go to the movies and don’t care if the exact same plot, characters and outcome featured in another film in the genre last month.

So for many people — not just film critics — it’s exciting to see something genuinely different. One thing most films specialise in (subscribing to the narrow Hollywood paradigms of the adventurous, result-oriented hero’s journey) is giving you very clear cues about how to feel about various characters.

It’s conditioning audiences are extremely desensitised to through pure volume, and for that reason The Assassination of Richard Nixon is one of the most original movies in ages.

It tells the true story of the least successful assassination attempt you’ve never heard of, when furniture salesman Sam Bicke boarded a plane in 1974 with intentions to crash it into the White House.

With his usual precision, Sean Penn plays Bicke, who we can identify with one moment and then gasp in horror at the next. Obsessed with the American dream and those who have no chance at it (including himself), estranged from his wife and family and failing dismally at his job, Bicke represents the worst days of all our lives when nothing seems to go right and everyone has it in for us.

Sad and lonely, Sam wants to assert his right for his life not to be a waste, so in planing his terrible act, he records his thoughts, intending to send them to the composer Leonard Bernstein, whose music he likes and so appoints to tell his story to the world.

Also desperate for basic human connection in a society he feels isolated from, Bicke does anything to feel kinship, whether it’s believing that Leonard Bernstein is going to take any notice of an obsessed psycho or wishing to join the militant Black Panthers because they’re similarly disenfranchised (despite considering whites their enemy).

His play-acting in front of a bank manager to try and get a loan for a business venture is enough to make you cringe — he could be the crazy homeless guy living on a train station everyone avoids. Then in the next scene, he’ll be saying something about the sadness and lack of opportunity we can all nod at knowingly.

For co-writer and director Niels Mueller, the fine line between good guy and bad guy in Sam wasn’t something he had to make up. He wrote the original screenplay without any knowledge of the case but they were uncannily similar, and when he stumbled across the Sam Bicke story and read the transcripts of Bicke’s recordings, Mueller saw the man who didn’t wear a completely black or white hat.

‘We never had any discussions about likeability or sympathy,’ Mueller says. ‘Some of the things he said made good sense. There’s this almost childlike simplicity to the logic but it’s logic nonetheless. Then in the next passage all your sympathy goes out the window.’

How hard is it though to write a story about a guy who — as Mueller puts it — has lost all empathy? ‘We tried not to cast judgment,’ he remembers about writing the film, ‘of course if I was sitting in an airport and I thought there was a Sam Bicke waiting I’d do anything to stop him. But when you’re telling a story from his point of view, you try not to cast judgement on the actions and behaviour on a person.’

And there’s also an aspect of the media age gone mad in Richard Nixon, that of Sam Bicke’s intended target. ‘I wanted Sam’s relationship with his target — Richard Nixon — being the one most of us have with our prime ministers or presidents,’ Mueller says, ‘one through the TV. And that was tricky to pull off because you don’t have conventional cinematic moment of prey and quarry or hunter and hunted.’

So partly a comment on the state of modern life, partly on the isolation human beings feel from each other and partly on the destruction that can visit upon the lives around us if we feel desperate enough, Mueller and Penn have found the motivation of the unknown assassin and bought a chilling and touching tale to life in the process.

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