03 April, 2005

Review: The Assassination of Richard Nixon -- The Loser's Manifesto

To some of us this may seem a familiar story by now, it has many fictional antecedents, most notably in Scorsese's masterpiece "Taxi Driver", and the sketch based on the same events as this movie is a non musical centerpiece of Sondheim's Assassins. Sam Bicke, a disaffected, disgruntled loser seeks infamy not fortune by seeking to kill the biggest crook in the land. He obsesses over a celebrity (Leonard Bernstein), to whom he sends tapes of his polemics against all that is wrong with USA incorporated. This manifesto completed, he plans to hijack a plane to fly into the White House.

Sean Penn has visited this territory before, the absurdly delusional mafia lawyer in Carlito's Way, the casual coke dealer in over his addled head in The Falcon and the Snowman, and the jazz guitar prodigy who constantly wrong foots himself by following his penis, his music and his alcohol fueled self-pity in Sweet and Lowdown. His fine performance in this film distills many of the tropes of these characters and produces the ultimate loser's loser.

Who of hasn't, at one time or another, sneered at the plastic optimism of the Dale Carnegie How to Influence Friends and Win People worldview, railed against a system where racism and other more subtle forms of prejudice restrict the fates of its victims, or looked down on those who knuckle under to the bullshit and play the game with all its unfair rules? Sam Bicke's mind obsesses over these sorts of ideas with a self-perpetuating self defeatism.

He self-righteously decries the falseness and lies of his furniture salesman employer and his similarly business minded tire shop owner brother, yet he lies to both of them and also to his estranged wife. He deludes himself into thinking that his honesty is of ultimate importance. His dream mobile tire selling business is based on giving his customers an above the board view with a discount up front (sort of a nascent Saturn dealer), yet when his black business partner to be almost begs Sam to leave race off the loan application, he shoots them both in the foot by sticking by his honesty.

Yes, he's 70's liberalism gone crazy. He almost gets his wife fired from her waitress job by showing up and objecting to her degrading uniform and sleazy customers. He is so desperate to identify with and join in the struggle of the downtrodden, he tries to join the Black Panthers suggesting they should have an arm of white supporters called the Zebras. His stand on race on the loan application gets him a refusal.

The story is by turns comic and tragic, the downbeat and inevitable disintegration of Sam Bicke into would be hi-jacker/assassin (he can't even get that right). A very good character study of a man whose idealism and self-pity removes him from reality. It is well structured around Bicke's tapes to Bernstein (nowadays, he would probably have just started a Blog, and worked for the Dean campaign.). Not everyone's cup of misery, but fascinating and well done. You, too, could be a loser, but don't be afraid to see this film, that's just what "the man" wants you to think......

(Sidebar -- I wonder if the real Sam Byck's tapes to Sondheim's friend Bernstein had anything to do with the genesis of Assassin's or the nature of his inclusion in that great musical piece? Anyone know, or have more time to Google than I, please comment here........)



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