Most people still haven’t heard of Sam Byck, but in the 30 years since his death, he’s already been fictionalized twice. In Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Assassins, Byck was out of his mind, wolfing down Whoppers in his old Buick, dressed in the ratty Santa suit he’d worn to picket the White House in ’73, and barking his bloodthirsty plans into a tape recorder. And now he has a movie, Niels Mueller’s The Assassination of Richard Nixon, starring Sean Penn. The title refers to the event that would have made Byck a household name had the out-of-work Maryland tire salesman not botched his plan to do in Tricky Dick by flying a hijacked airliner into the White House. Had he not, in other words, been such an absolute failure.
For a serious actor, Byck’s mysteries make irresistible fodder. For a self-serious actor, they’re imperative. Clearly, he and Penn were made for each other. But that’s not to say they make much headway together in the name of political progress. Byck, or “Bicke” as the movie calls him, probably figured the assassination attempt was his last chance for eminence. Not if Sean Penn has anything to say about it.
For Penn, it’s as if playing a successful assassin, someone whose name you know, just wouldn’t do. Mueller’s script, co-written with Kevin Kennedy, is the perfect Penn vehicle: The Assassination of Richard Nixon suggests, rather bluntly, but with conviction, that even being a psychopathic mediocrity shouldn’t necessarily exclude you from the American Dream. Penn’s Bicke suffers many familiar debasements: estrangement from his family, emasculation by his boss, contempt for the deceitfulness that salesmanship requires of him, and heartbreak at the gradual discovery that he is not a passable salesman — nor, ergo, a provider. It’s enough to make a man, well, antisocial. And when Bicke’s boss tells him early on that Nixon must be the best salesman in history, on account of having swindled the American public twice, that gives Bicke a target.
Nixon remains monolithic and unfathomable, deliberately nothing more than a televised talking head. But Penn goes out of his way to show Bicke as an everyman. Even at his most juvenile, irresponsible, and pathetic, we’re not supposed to stay mad at the would-be assassin. The tender remorse that follows his occasional tantrums suggests a meek and fragile soul, cracking in the pressure cooker of a corrupt society.
Penn synthesizes those indignities brilliantly, but his identification with the character is so strong, and so obvious, that he winds up laying on his Bicke a little thick. His performance is a like a seminar on how the method actor plays the alienated wacko. One possible explanation for Penn’s tendency to go a degree or two past what’s needed is that no one has ever dared to stop him. Maybe his notorious intensity simply intimidates his directors. If his histrionics in Mystic River are any indication, even the mighty Clint Eastwood — even the entire Academy — is just plain afraid of the guy. Mueller, a first-time director, didn’t stand a chance.
Penn wants so badly to articulate the reasons that an everyman might be driven to violence that the question of whether Bicke was always mentally ill or really got that way just by living in Nixon’s America seems rhetorical to him. “I do not believe in a simplistic and inflammatory view of good and evil,” Penn wrote in an open letter to President Bush, printed in The Washington Post in 2002. “I believe this is a big world full of men, women, and children who struggle to eat, to love, to work, to protect their families, their beliefs, and their dreams.” One wonders what might have become of the real Sam Byck had he the means to take out a page in the Post instead of sending tape-recorded rants to one of its reporters, and to luminaries like Jonas Salk, Hank Aaron, and Leonard Bernstein. Conversely, one wonders what sort of trouble Penn — whose own antisocial tendencies have fortified his cult of personality — might have gotten into had talent, fame, and privilege not been bestowed on him.
To be sure, it goes too far to call Penn an assassin’s apologist. For one thing, as the movie’s double-take-inducing title reminds us, Byck never quite managed to perform an assassination. What’s more, while Penn’s display induces pity, empathy, fear, and exasperation all at once, it finally doesn’t do much to redeem the character. But how could it? Byck wasn’t an everyman; he was nuts. He was also very much the product of a time when the country had begun to envision the American Dream as an entitlement, and to define political persuasion by who you blamed when the Dream didn’t come true.
Byck’s name came up only very rarely in the post-9/11 news. Even when his hapless plane-bomb plot, drowned in its day by the deluge of Watergate, suddenly connected again with current events, he didn’t resurface. But now that we again have a widely reviled Republican president accused of cooking an election and presiding over an unpopular war, it might be a good time for Byck to finally make a name for himself. And Penn is here to help. It’s only by chance that the movie’s politics seem so precisely targeted; its development began before the 2000 election and the Iraq war, and its release was planned for after the election of 2004. Unmistakably, though, his protagonist’s feverish armchair analysis of “a cancer” growing in “the system” seems intended to strike a resounding chord with Penn’s camp in the current electorate. “What good is good in times like these?” Bicke complains, sounding like your typical dispirited Kerry voter.
Which is why, if The Assassination of Richard Nixon has a lesson for today’s liberals, it’s an inadvertent one: For heaven’s sake, keep your shit together. There is depression, and there is going off the deep end. Ironically, Penn’s earnestness, in both politics and performance, seems to ensure his inattention to this distinction. As surely as his portrayal of Sam Bicke will anger those conservatives Penn is most likely to provoke, it will also earn praise from supporters as the best performance of his career. That makes The Assassination of Richard Nixon a confounding film but not a politically serious one. If the movie Bicke has any superlative virtue, any real civic usefulness, it’s only for the cautionary clarity with which Sean Penn has shown us what a sore loser really looks like.