Baltimore, 1974. Sam Bicke explains and explains and explains. He has it all worked out, why he is right and the world is wrong, and he has a fierce obsession with injustice. "My name is Sam Bicke," he says at the beginning of one of the tapes he mails to Leonard Bernstein, "and I consider myself a grain of sand." He sells office supplies, very badly. His marriage is at an end. The bank is not acting on his loan application. Nixon is still in the White House. The Black Panthers are being persecuted. It is all part of the same rage coiling within him.
Sean Penn plays Bicke as a man who has always been socially inept and now, as his life comes apart, descends into madness. His own frustration and the evils in the world are all the same, all somehow someone else's fault, and in the opening scene of "The Assassination of Richard Nixon," we see him in an airport parking garage, concealing a pistol in a leg brace. He mails one last tape to Leonard Bernstein. He plans to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House.
There was a real Sam Bicke (spelled Byck), whose plan of course failed. Niels Mueller's movie is based on his botched assassination scheme, but many of the other details, including some scenes of mordant humor, are the invention of Mueller and his co-writer, Kevin Kennedy. This is a character study of a marginal man who goes off the rails, and Penn is brilliant at evoking how daily life itself is filled, for Bicke, with countless challenges to his rigid sense of right and wrong.
Consider his job as an office supply salesman. He is selling chairs covered in Naugahyde. The client asks if they are leather. He says they are not. His boss, Jack Jones (Jack Thompson), steps in and smoothly explains they are "Naugahyde-covered leather." Uh, huh. When Sam offers a client a discount to close a sale, Jack calls him into his office and screams at him for selling the desk at a loss. The client overhears. Later Sam finds out the joke was on him. Jack wants to help him, and recommends reading The Power of Positive Thinking, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.
His sense of honesty offended by his job, Sam becomes obsessed with Nixon. "He made us a promise -- he didn't deliver. Then he sold us on the exact same promise and he got elected again." He visits the local Black Panther office to make a donation, and as a Panther official (Mykelti Williamson) listens incredulously, shares his ideas about renaming the Panthers the Zebras and admitting white members -- like Sam Bicke, for example.
Sam is separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and two daughters. He dreams of saving his marriage. She can't make him understand it's over. He is served with divorce papers and protests, "we're supposed to be working this out!" In one of the movie's most painful moments, he talks to the family dog: "You love me, don't you?" The dog seems indifferent.
Sam dreams of starting a tire service with his closest friend, Bonny
Simmons (Don Cheadle). This depends on a loan. Sam and Bonny are a poor risk, the Small Business Administration drags out the paperwork, and Sam explains and explains and explains how important the loan is, and how urgent it is that it comes quickly.
Penn conveys anger through small, contained details. He is one of our great actors, able to invest insignificant characters with importance because their lives are so urgent to themselves. Was it Penn or the filmmakers who thought of the touch where Sam puts on a false mustache in the airport parking lot. What for? Nobody knows who he is or what he looks like, and if his plan succeeds there will be no Sam Bicke left, mustache or not.
Penn shows him always on the outside. Kept out of his house. Turned away by the bank. Ineligible for the Black Panthers. The outsider at the office, listening to his boss and a co-worker snickering about him. The only person he can confide in is Leonard Bernstein, whose music he admires. (The real Bernstein, who received tapes from the real Byck, was mystified to be attached however distantly to a hijacking plot.)
"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is about a man on a collision course; given the stark terms in which he arranges right and wrong, he will sooner or later crack up. He hasn't a clue about appropriate behavior, about how others perceive him, about what may be right but is nevertheless impossible. The movie's title has one effect before we see it, and another afterward, when we can see the grandiosity and self-deceit that it implies. What really happens is that Sam Bicke assassinates himself.
Does the film have a message? I don't think it wants one. It is about the journey of a man going mad. A film can simply be a character study, as this one is. That is sufficient. A message might seem trundled in and gratuitous. Certainly our opinions of Nixon, Vietnam and the Black Panthers are irrelevant; they enter the movie only as objects of Bicke's obsessions. We cannot help sensing a connection with another would-be assassin from the 1970s, another obsessed loner, Travis Bickle. Travis pours out his thoughts in journals; Sam uses tapes. They feel the need to justify themselves, and lack even a listener.
In just under two weeks – on a Friday, as the workings of the calendar would have it – will fall the fiftieth anniversary of an event that took place early on a Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas, which marked one of American history’s most profound tragedies. November 22, 1963 is a day which, alongside December 7, 1941, and September 11, 2001, evokes the most solemn and searing memories in the collective American consciousness – and all the more so because, unlike Pearl Harbor, which was preceded by two years of world war, and 9/11, which was presaged by a series of terrorist actions against Americans abroad, the assassination of President Kennedy came utterly out of the blue.
A few days after the death of the President, his remains, in a caisson pulled by a riderless horse named Black Jack, went through the streets of Washington, followed by a procession of dignitaries that included three Presidents – Lyndon Johnson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Harry S. Truman.
It is not a very common occurence for three Presidents to be in Washington on the same day, and it is an extremely unusual event for three Presidents – current, former, or future – to be in the same city unless a political convention or a Presidential funeral is underway. But on the morning of November 22, 1963, three Presidents were in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, within thirty miles of each other.
In Fort Worth that day, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson awoke in the Hotel Texas and prepared to board the plane that would take him on the brief flight to Love Field in Dallas, and from there to the motorcade that would enter Dealey Plaza just before 12:30 Central Standard Time.
And in Dallas that morning, Richard Nixon awoke in the Baker Hotel. There was a policeman stationed in the hallway outside his door, but the officer was there not so much to protect the former Vice President as to deter jewel thieves or autograph seekers from bothering movie star Joan Crawford who was a few doors down from RN.
Both the Hollywood legend and the future President were in town for the same reason – to attend the annual convention of the American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages. Both were there on behalf of the Pepsi-Cola corporation – Miss Crawford as a member of its board of directors (she was the widow of its chairman), and RN in his capacity as an attorney working on Pepsi’s behalf.
After meeting various bottling-plant executives the previous day, RN had spoken to reporters that night, delivering a vigorous critique of the Kennedy White House’s policies in his capacity as Republican elder statesman.
In the morning, RN proceeded to Love Field, and boarded a plane which departed a little more than an hour before Kennedy and Johnson’s arrival.
For the rest of the story – plus a very vivid account of the sixteen-year friendship of RN and JFK – I’m happy to recommend this article from the Dallas Morning News by Alan Peppard. For nearly a half-century now, conspiracy theorists have read all manner of sinister meanings into the fact that Richard Nixon was in Dallas the morning of the assassination, and Mr. Peppard’s article, part of the News’ thoroughly well-researched and well-written coverage of the 11/22/63 events this month, tells the real story, minus all the smoke and mirrors so often attached to it, and tells it well.
The article’s conclusion, describing how RN concluded the day, gives a good indication of its overall quality, of a kind increasingly rare in the journalism of today. (It’s worth adding that the letters referred to below can be seen at the Nixon Library.)
Nixon entered the cocoon of his 10-room apartment overlooking Central Park. The long hallway was hung with Chinese paintings, a gift from Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The living room featured light colored drapery and large Oriental jardinières.
His private library was furnished with comfortable, upholstered easy chairs and sofas. On the mantel was his extensive collection of elephants made from teak, ivory, crystal, stone and plastic.
“That night, I sat up late in my library,” Nixon remembered. He thought of his brothers Arthur and Harold, dead at ages 7 and 23, both from tuberculosis. He thought of Kennedy and the close-knit Kennedy family. From father Joe down to youngest child, Ted, Nixon knew all of the Kennedys. And he thought of Jackie, who had once interviewed him as part of her job as the “Inquiring Photographer” for the Washington Times-Herald.
While Jackie waited out the autopsy and embalming of her husband at Bethesda Naval Hospital, the fire in Nixon’s library burned itself out.
Before the dawn of Nov. 23, he put pen to paper.
Nixon began, “Dear Jackie, While the hand of fate made Jack and me political opponents, I always cherished the fact that we were personal friends from the time we came to the Congress together in 1947.”
Several weeks later, he received a letter written in her precise, feminine script: “You two young men — colleagues in Congress, adversaries in 1960 — and now look what has happened.”
Jackie foresaw Nixon’s election as president. “Just one thought I would say to you,” she wrote. “If it doesn’t work out as you have hoped for so long, please be consoled by what you already have — your life and your family.”