A blip on the harried cultural radar of 1974—when Watergate, hemorrhaging ‘Nam fallout, European upheavals, and endless Cold War negotiations clogged the media pipeline—the sad tale of Samuel Byck was all but subsumed. A jobless high school dropout, failed family man, and all-around discombobulated misfit, Byck spent much of the early ’70s nursing a bitter lefty paranoia until finally he attempted, ludicrously, to hijack an airliner before takeoff, in order to fly the plane from Baltimore into the White House and eliminate the source of his and the nation’s festering problems.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that Byck—his name jiggered as Bicke for Niels Mueller’s moody, pretentious, but potent debut The Assassination of Richard Nixon—would be remembered now, not very long after the pilots of 9-11 co-opted his brainstorm and succeeded where he had failed. Mueller’s film—midwifed with the help of producers Alfonso Cuarón, Alexander Payne, and Leonardo DiCaprio—can never quite get into the addled head of Bicke (Sean Penn), but its telescope stare is relentless. The central gauntlet of this superfreak’s life at the moment we meet him is a sales job at a Pittsburgh office supply store captained by a steak-and-whiskey bull-goose pitchman (Jack Thompson). The air is filled with the sales culture’s first wave of closer mantras and success bibles; Dale Carnegie was still transforming the American counter-jumper. The arduous ass-end of Bicke’s life gives Mueller plenty of chances to savage the ethos of salesmanship as few homegrown movies, outside of Mamet, have dared to do. (To say that someone could “sell sno-cones to Eskimos,” or some such evil crap, is in Hollywood a compliment of the highest order.) Thompson’s bearish bully sums it up nicely, gesticulating to a televised Nixon (in Mueller’s impressionistic 1974, the TV stations were all Nixon, all the time) and lauding the prez for lying through his five-o’clock shadow and selling the citizenry not once but twice on an end to involvement in Vietnam.
Penn sweats, whines, wails, and implodes like the immaculate character-research-lab pro he is, and insofar as Mueller’s film works, it functions as a creepy, nearly nauseating portrait of American loserdom. It’s another theme rarely articulated in the Bush years, and Penn walks the talk, fuming at social disrespect (as Bicke’s garage-owning buddy, Don Cheadle’s whole role is one big “just take it easy”) and gazing deadeyed out at a quotidian he cannot understand or participate in. He’s virtually a lost icon of corporate-capitalism victimhood, particularly when attempting to deal with his estranged wife (Naomi Watts, cold to the touch) and kids, who make no bones about surviving adequately enough without his presence in the family as either man or breadwinner.
Narrated with Bicke’s worshipful letters to Leonard Bernstein, Assassination is more than a little inconclusive, and Bicke’s final Waterloo on board a passenger jet with a briefcase full of gasoline remains as mysterious an act of outrageous self-destruction as when the film began. But the singe of helpless, clueless nobody-ness lingers, as it used to in the movies of the Nixon years.