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The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)

The mad story of a true man.

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 95 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 15

It is 1974. Unhappily separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts), estranged from his more successful brother (Michael Wincott), humiliated by his boss (Jack Thompson), self-destructively averse to lying and increasingly unable to distinguish between society's problems and his own, Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) is heading for a breakdown – which duly comes when his dream of opening a tyre repair business with his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) falls apart. So as the Watergate scandal unfolds on his television set, Sam begins to apply the voguish principles of self-help and positive thinking to a plot to bring down the one man whom he holds accountable for all the nation's ills.

It hardly requires a thoroughgoing familiarity with American history to know that Richard Nixon was not assassinated – on the contrary, he died of a stroke in 1994, some twenty years after he resigned in disgrace from the office of US President. So the counterfactual title of Niels Mueller's directorial debut, 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon', is a concise signal of the strange play of fact and fiction to be found in the film. It is 'inspired' by the true story of would-be assassin Sam Byck – but in fact Mueller had already written a thirty-page outline of the film, provisionally entitled 'The Assassination of LBJ', before he discovered that there was a real historical figure who conformed in some detail (a divorced salesman-turned-assassin who kept a tape recorder diary) to his (till then) fictitious character.

In telling a tale of a man from the mid-1970s whose growing alienation and moral disgust with the society around him become focussed against a distant politician, Mueller owes as much of a debt to Martin Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver' (1976) as to real history – indeed Mueller's decision to change Sam Byck's surname to Bicke seems designed to associate him more closely with Scorsese's protagonist Travis Bickle – although the latter was in turn inspired by the diaries of another real person, Arthur Bremer, who was convicted of shooting presidential hopeful George Wallace.

The film also seems inspired by more recent events in America – for it is difficult not to see contemporary resonances in Bicke's plan to fly a passenger plane into the White House, let alone in the casting of Penn as a man who rails against the corruption and greed of a warmongering Republican President. Yet once again this impression is deceptive – in fact the script was completed, and Penn had signed for the rôle, in 1999, not only before the terror of 9/11, but even before George W. Bush entered office.

There is no doubt that Bicke – brilliantly realised by Penn – is one of life's losers, undermined as much by himself as by his circumstances – yet his experiences reveal a basic incompatability between the integrity and honesty that he so values, and the fulfilment of the American dream. Unlike Travis Bickle, who is cynically transformed by the media into a hero at the end of 'Taxi Driver', Bicke (like the real Byck) does not even make it onto the public's radar, instead disappearing into the lost pages of American history. Which is what makes 'The Assassination of Richard Nixon' so important and so urgent – for it shows that the righteous anger of the anonymous, the dispossessed and the disempowered, though easily overlooked or forgotten, should never be ignored – and that really is a truth worth telling in any and every age.

It's Got: An astonishingly honest portrayal from Sean Penn of a mans slide from being a misfit to just plain deranged, with excellent support from the rest of the cast; a doom-laden tale of failure and impotence that could as easily have been made as set in the seventies; and a white man trying to persuade the Black Panthers to rebrand themselves as Zebras ("membership will double!").

It Needs: Family counselling and better career advice - oh, and a more equitable, less corrupt world.


A forgotten chapter of history that exposes truths about the American dream worth remembering.