27 April 2005

The Assassination of Richard Nixon

Tonight's shiny happy movie was The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn, directed by Niels Mueller. Though it sounds from the title like an alternate history story, it is actually a claustrophobic character study of a man who in 1974 tried to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House. He killed a security guard and a co-pilot before being wounded by a police officer and then killing himself.

If you've seen the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical Assassins, you've heard of Sam Byck, but other than that, his name has not been much remembered by history, even to the extent that John Hinckley (who tried to kill Reagan) is remembered. In Assassins, Byck doesn't have a song of his own, but he gets a couple of monologues that are some of the best non-musical writing in any play Sondheim has been involved with. (In the script, Weidman even gets to quote his collaborator in an odd and morbid way: Byck sent audio taped confessions to, among others, Leonard Bernstein, for whom Sondheim wrote the lyrics for West Side Story. Thus, in his monologues, Byck sings a bit of the song "America".) In Assassins Byck is boorish and even funny, but that's not the case here.

I don't usually like biographical movies, not because they're usually inaccurate and selective about details, but because they are usually less interested in the complexities of the character portrayed than in What The Story Stands For. I didn't have much use for Ray, for instance, because the "lessons" the filmmakers wanted us to see the character learn were so numbingly obvious and cliched. That's not the case with The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Mueller and his co-writer Kevin Kennedy changed the spelling of Byck's name to Bicke and changed many of the details of his life story, but they didn't change them to make Byck's life fit into an easy-to-recognize pattern that would appeal to the popcorn eaters in the multiplexes. Despite the fictionalizations, the story feels uncomfortably real, because Bicke is a kind of man who is all too common: out of place in the world, but determined to succeed, and with this determination he only succeeds in making everything worse. Many reviewers have compared Bicke to Willy Loman, but the character type goes back to Raskolnikov, too, and even MacBeth and Oedipus. Sam Bicke isn't any sort of tragic hero, though -- he's a pathetic anti-villain, a creature that is loathsome and ridiculous at the same time. There's a creepy intensity to Sean Penn's performance that removes every shred of human nobility from the character and yet still makes him compelling, a sad and hapless monster. It's a better performance than ones Penn has won awards for.

Both Sams, Byck and Bicke, latched on to vague leftist ideas, an aspect of the character particularly well portrayed in The Assassination of Richard Nixon. It would be easy to make Bicke's desperate attempt to find meaning in his failures into a parody or a cynical morality play, but the film is more complex than that, and one of the most wrenching scenes (in a film composed of wrenching scenes) involves Bicke's visit to the local Black Panther office to offer his support, ideas, and criticisms. Here is a man who has tried to put into practice the mantras of managerial self-help books -- How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking, those Boy Scout manuals for minor capitalists -- and, having failed and been rejected, now decides he's on the side of anybody fighting "the system". All along, though, it's clear that whatever problems there are with the system and whatever fights it deserves, Bicke is latching on to anything outside of himself for blame. When even the Black Panthers can't solve his problems, he lashes out at the enemy who seems to be following him everywhere on the TV screen: Richard Nixon. The film becomes a remarkably subtle study of the tectonic plates of race, class, and personal psychology.

The structure of the scenes is narrowly subjective: we view the world of the movie through Sam's perception. The wonder of film as an art, though, is that a certain distance can be conveyed at the same time as an intense subjectivity -- the events are the ones that Sam is a part of, but we the viewers are separate from them and able to see with more clarity. We don't know what caused his separation and divorce from his wife, and so in the scenes where he tries to rebuild a relationship with her, we don't understand why she is so cold to him and why his children will barely speak to him (just as he apparently doesn't understand), but we can feel how deeply broken the relationship is far more than he is able to. The tension in those scenes becomes nauseating.

Bicke's last hour, that horrible, desperate lashing out at a world that had no use for him, manages to be both clear to explain and impossible to understand. It was premeditated, carefully planned, deliberate, and amazingly stupid. The line between tense sanity and obsessive insanity is no more clear in the movie than in life. The world is filled with people whose lives are like Sam Bicke's, but they don't end up killing anyone or hatching grand schemes to bring justice to the universe through their own apocalypse. One of the many good choices the creators of The Assassination of Richard Nixon made was not to try to slap some easy moral on the story, not to reduce the horror, not to manipulate the audience's feelings. Like so many others, the story of Sam Bicke (and Byck) is simple enough, but far too complex for any formula to explain. The artistic solution in such cases is to portray the character with as much integrity to the portrayal as possible, to allow representation to speak for itself, and to let viewers interpret how they will.