The Assassination of Richard Nixon
Review Date: 1.10.05
I had a question for my friend Maurice at The Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Santa Cruz. “Did you reprise Taxi Driver and open The Assassination Of Richard Nixon on the same weekend for comparison purposes”, I asked him. “We’re not that good”, he told me, and dismissed it as a coincidence.
Well, for a movie reviewer, it was a fortuitous coincidence. I watched both films over the weekend. I hope it doesn’t reflect poorly on my brain chemistry if I tell you that I remember Taxi Driver in brilliant colors, but that my recollection of The Assassination… is mostly in black and white and shades of gray, though it too was shot in color.
Each film is a portrait of a lonely urban American male, spiraling inward to oblivion. Both men are determined to implode with an historic bang. One would assassinate a would-be president, the other an actual president. Both films are set in the mid seventies. Even the names of the protagonists are strikingly similar – Travis Bickel in Taxi Driver,
and Sam Bicke in The Assassination…
The Assassination… is Neils Mueller’s first film. According to the production notes, the idea for his film came from a 30 page story he was working on in the late 90s. It was about a man who loses his family and his job and who, in a symbolic gesture of retribution against a system that grinds the common man to pulp, decides to kill the president. In his story, the president was LBJ. It was only after he began to research presidential assassins and would-be assassins that he discovered the true story of Sam Byck. Byck’s background was so similar to Mueller’s fictional character that Mueller turned the project into a screenplay, the biopic now called The Assassination Of RichardNixon. That was years before the 9/11 terrorists almost succeeded in flying an airplane into The White House. Mueller is sensitive about the notion that his film is based on TaxiDriver, or on the events of 9/11. In fact, it’s more likely that Taxi Driver may have been, in some small degree, inspired by the real Sam Bicke’s failed attempt on the life of Richard Nixon.
Nevertheless, watching these movies back to back is instructive. Mueller’s film is claustrophobic compared to Scorcese’s. Sam Bicke’s world is small, and Sean Penn occupies almost every frame in it. Most of the time he’s trying to sell office equipment to the owners of small businesses, or fecklessly wooing his estranged wife. And he spends a lot of time waiting for what he hopes will be good news to arrive in his mailbox.
Travis Bickel’s world is larger. He’s often in his cab, cruising the Big, and to him, Rotten Apple. There’s no place he won’t go. He totes up resentments as rapidly as miles. And when he begins his descent into hell he does it with style. Travis Bickel is naive and brash and cocky.
Sean Penn’s Sam Bicke is anything but cocky. Penn is brilliant in the role. He’s so good that watching him becomes an excruciatingly painful act. We know what’s going to happen to his character, but not quite how. The certainty of his collapse demands at least a few strokes of grace from the director, but none are forthcoming. And long before the film is over, Bicke’s relentless deterioration finally becomes almost too much to bear.
I don’t want to discourage you from seeing a great performance, but be warned – The
Assassination Of Richard Nixon will test your mettle.
For KUSP’s Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.