The Assassination of Richard Nixon is one of those movies “inspired” by a true story. I did a small amount of reading about the subject matter of this movie, and they did indeed change a fair amount. The spelling of the main character’s name is different for one thing, and they compressed events that happened over the course of several years to make it seem like they all happened in a year or so.
I wasn’t familiar with this at all before seeing the movie, but in 1974, Sam Byck shot several people and then himself on an airplane that he had had some cockamamie plan to fly into the White House to kill Nixon.
Sean Penn nails the lead, as he seems to for pretty much any part he plays.
Of all the characters in the movies I’ve written about so far, Byck (actually “Bicke” in this film) is most like the title character of Edmond.
How much this reflects the real person I don’t know, but he’s definitely a psychologically interesting type in the movie. And one that—like the title character of Edmond—is appealing to me in certain ways.
Bicke is kind of a loser type, but his lack of success is in large part due to his moral objections to much of how the world works. So I certainly see a kindred spirit there.
I read a couple of reviews that described his values as clearly insane, and as very much a product of his time. The idea being that he reflects a time of misguided ’60s idealism and weird excess that with the benefit of hindsight we can see was all pretty silly.
Whereas I think his outrage wasn’t misplaced at all. I think his being frustrated by the things he was frustrated by is a sign of mental health, and that it’s the people who don’t share his outrage who are insane.
In a kind of simplistic, superficial way, he’s concerned with issues of racism and sexism, but the main thing he just can’t get comfortable with is the routine dishonesty and game playing of human interaction, especially in a business or sales context.
He is recently separated from a woman he’s still in love with and had several children with, a woman who barely tolerates him and has zero sympathy for his moral qualms and idiosyncrasies. He works as an office furniture salesman for an employer who is even more domineering and crooked than most toward his employees and customers.
Bicke’s position basically is that he’s constantly being pressured to be someone other than himself, to be a bad person, to be dishonest, to be what other people want him to be, to play games of other people’s devising, and that that’s a terrible thing. (I agree.) He thinks if you try to be the best person you can be, and you deal with people honestly, and you’re motivated by love in your dealings with your wife and kids, then you should be able to survive in the world, support yourself and your family, keep the love and respect of your spouse, etc. (Can’t disagree with him there either.)
It seems to me the reason he goes off the deep end in an Edmond fashion, and thus far I haven’t, is that his insistence on personal integrity is mixed up with all kinds of other more mainstream values and tendencies.
He has a military background. (That’s an elephant in the room that people rarely talk about by the way. When you so strip people of their humanity that you turn them into the sort of things that can kill strangers on order, of course it’s going to fuck up a lot of them in ways you might not intend or desire. You can’t do that to a person and think it’s some temporary thing, that it has no consequences. Whether it be in the form of homicide or suicide or voting for Republicans or whatever, a lot of those people will do destructive and terrible things down the road as a result of that abuse.) He’s loaded up by his employer with Dale Carnegie/Norman Vincent Peale style blather. He retains some macho, stalker type tendencies when he gets frustrated with women. The kind of success he’s aiming for and feels entitled to—a wife and kids, material success through a job in business—is a very mainstream kind of success.
So it’s not so much having pro-civil rights views or being disgusted by certain aspects of capitalism and such that is his problem. It’s feeling that way and being convinced he can and should win the games he can’t stomach playing.
I might quibble a bit with the fact that the character isn’t more visibly crazy earlier. In Edmond, William H. Macy, even early on when I found him to be a mostly sympathetic character, is clearly “off.” For much of this movie, though Bicke’s ideas and such don’t fit particularly well with most of the people he interacts with, or with mainstream society as a whole, he doesn’t seem particularly odd in the sense of having elements of insanity. He’s not one of those people that you can say, “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something very wrong with that guy.”
When they do decide to later show him losing it, Penn portrays that very effectively. There’s a gripping scene where he’s in a meeting trying to get a small business loan, and he’s right on the borderline of being in or out of control. He’s trying to explain what he objects to about the dishonesty of common business practices and the contrasting way he intends to operate his business (all pretty clear and unobjectionable stuff, and thus incomprehensible to the “normal” person he’s speaking to), but he knows he dare not really open up and show how passionate he feels about these things, how personal these issues have become for him. So he’ll start to get overexcited for a couple seconds, and then you’ll see him consciously rein himself in, adopting an artificially calm and respectful tone. And then he’ll again be on the verge of getting fired up, and again just manage to pull back from the brink. He’s not crazy enough yet to be unaware of how he’ll be perceived by others if he’s too open about his emotions, too frank about his beliefs and values, but it takes all the will power he has to more or less remain in control.
Then you see him slip more in the final stages of the movie, as he gets it into his head to assassinate the President.
Which decision, too, by the way, is psychologically intriguing. It’s a kind of reaction against powerlessness, a wild striking out against the world that in his mind has conspired somehow to treat him like a loser for trying to be a good and honest person. It’s a kind of “I won’t be ignored. I won’t be disrespected. I won’t be treated as insignificant. If you won’t let me succeed as a good person, then I’ll make my mark some other way. One way or another, the world is going to know I was here. I won’t go quietly.”
Again, Penn is excellent here, not overdoing it with a lot of mugging and gesticulating and such, but really capturing the nervous, sweaty creepiness of a person in the midst of a breakdown.
By this point, there’s little rhyme or reason to the ways he asserts himself. Emotion has shunted rationality aside. He becomes violent in ways that don’t make much sense even relative to his worldview. Nor is his means-ends reasoning intact. His hijacking plan is poorly thought out and quickly falls apart, and he has to ad lib in a frenzy.
Again as with Edmond, I spent a good portion of the movie comparing myself to the lead character and speculating about how and why we part ways. As I alluded to, Bicke thinks he’s entitled to succeed on his own terms, and the more the world insists otherwise, the more it pushes him toward insanity.
Whereas I would say I’ve known almost all along that my values don’t fit in the world, that the better a person I am the less likely I am to succeed in conventional terms. I’m more reconciled to it, I suppose. And I think with his getting—and to some extent accepting—so many contrary messages from the military, from conservative mainstream society, etc., he’s torn in all different directions. I’m intellectually and morally confident enough that when my way conflicts with the world’s way, my attitude is “Isn’t it a shame the world’s so wrong,” but he has more self-doubt. He hasn’t made the break with materialism and traditional gender roles and such that his values maybe entail. He isn’t so sure the world’s wrong when it labels him a loser. He’s trying to juggle the world’s perceptions with his own, and it proves too volatile a combination for his sanity.
I also think my grounding in nonviolent philosophy is crucial here. I have gradually molded my nature in a direction diametrically opposed to what we see from Bicke at the end of this movie. Whatever anger I have tends to be superficial. I like people. It’s not like if I loosened the reins a bit I’d deal with people violently, because I’ve embraced the ethic of nonviolence so firmly for so many decades that it’s a part of me now. It would be exceedingly unnatural for me to go off violently on people.
Especially in a premeditated way, like concocting an assassination scheme. Anything’s possible in extreme circumstances in a moment of panic, but when I have a chance to think it through like that, violence is anathema to me. It’s not something that takes a lot of will power for me to avoid.
The way I see it, there are an enormous number of factors that determine your outcomes in life. Some are under your control; some are not. Some require you to be unhindered by moral scruples; some do not. In a sense, yes, you’re fighting with one arm tied behind your back if you have a conscience. But, one, insofar as values like truth and nonviolence are holding you back from success, so be it. Those values are more important than success. And, two, there are a myriad of other factors to work on, rather than sitting back and moping about how you’re too good to succeed. I have an incalculable number of things I know I can get better at that don’t require anything particularly morally repugnant. Until I’ve maxed out my potential in all those areas (which I won’t in a thousand lifetimes), I’ll never be in a position to know that the reason I failed to achieve my ends is that I was somehow “too good” a person.
I admire Bicke for his idealism. He’s wrong to react with violence against the world’s punishing him for his idealism, but I’m not saying my more passive acceptance of it is good. It would be better to be as outraged as him, but still to do the best you can, and to change what you can change with the tool of creative nonviolence. But he didn’t have that in him, that wasn’t a part of his make-up, of his background. When he lost control, his vague sense of what it is to stand up for oneself and be a man kicked in, with tragic results.
The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a solid film that gives one plenty to think about.