PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“What’s interesting about setting a film in the world of sales is that every single one of us has to sell. Our society functions around the sale.” As Niels Mueller describes it, his first feature, The Assassination of Richard Nixon, is about a salesman. Sadly, Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) is a miserable salesman, who finds his work repugnant, a process of deception and subjection. Based on the real story of Sam Byck, who plotted to kill Richard Nixon in 1974 by hijacking an airplane and crashing it into the White House, the movie is also, profoundly and provocatively, about sales. Specifically, it’s about the marketing of ideas—fears, policies, and beliefs—in order to manage current events and reshape history.
Mueller first conceived Sam as a desperate man, who loses his family and job. Mueller says that Sam is “looking for association,” which he eventually comes to see as a place in history, a means to change the class hierarchy that keeps him from achieving the “American Dream.” In researching the project, Mueller came upon the historical Byck, whose own plan to kill Nixon ended at BWI airport, after he made his way into a cockpit, shot the pilots and then himself.
Assassination combines Mueller’s interests in history and the kind of hopeless rage that erupts in violence; he was a UCLA film student when James Oliver Huberty shot and killed 21 people in a San Ysidro, California McDonald’s in 1984, whereupon Mueller started thinking about a script. Still, many viewers have pointed out the film’s resonance with Taxi Driver.
PopMatters: What are your feelings about the repeated comparisons between your movie and Scorsese’s?
Niels Mueller: When the first comparison that a person makes to a film like [Assassination], which has such current relevance, is to another film or to a play (like Death of a Salesman), as opposed to current events or history, I think, “Man, you need to get out more.”
PM: Perhaps the film’s handling of history and current events is too challenging?
NM: This film has been and will continue to be criticized from the left and from the right. But you don’t make a film like this without expecting polarized reactions; if you want to win a popularity contest, you go with safer material. Sean and I never talked about empathetic or sympathetic for Sam. We just tried to tell the truth of the character. People from the left, which I might be closer to, don’t like the film because Sam is a morally ambiguous character who’s espousing views that make sense early in the film, but they don’t like where he goes. People on the right think that it’s me, Sean Penn, and my writing partner Kevin Kennedy criticizing the Bush administration, which we didn’t know would exist when we finished writing the script in 1999.
PM: How has it changed shape since then?
NM: The film has taken on frightening relevance since we wrote it, between 9/11 and oil prices, as the film’s last image has Nixon talking about the price of gas at your service station. But look: there are reasons that so many people can see parallels between Nixon’s America and Bush II’s America. One is right in front of you, because you have people who were in the Nixon administration working in the Bush administration, so you have an advocacy today for running everything under a cloak of secrecy. And while there’s a portion of the population that notices, “Hey, what you’re saying this week isn’t what you said the week before,” the majority gives leadership the benefit of the doubt. Bush could watch this film and it could be a cautionary tale for him, because Nixon won the 1972 election by a landslide, but by 1974, he had lost his support entirely. Once it starts becoming clear that “America” is not necessarily being represented by its leader, the population turns on him.
PM: One lesson from that era would appear to be utter cynicism. People expect their elected officials to lie.
NM: George Lacoff talks about the nurturing parent versus the strict parent, and Al Franken reduces it to a more comical and apt description, of three-year-olds in the backseat expecting that their parents are driving them in the right direction, versus adults viewing their parents as individuals who need to be questioned occasionally. You love America, but you also question authority. In 1984, the most frightening image of the government was Big Brother monitoring everything you do. But Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, posits another frightening scenario, where you have so much information that the truth is lost in a sea of trivia. You can have Bush come out and say, “I never said Saddam Hussein was connected to 9/11.” Then, a month later, you have the former mayor of New York saying to the Republican National Convention, “This president came to New York and said, they’re gonna hear from us, and they heard from us now in Iraq.” He’s making the same connection that Bush denied, but no one cares. I think Huxley got it right.
PM: How did you conceive the scene where Sam tries to find a connection with the Black Panthers?
NM: I’m pleased we were able to work out that Panthers office scene with help from David Hilliard, one of the founders of the BPC [who appears briefly on television in the film, inspiring Sam’s interest], because he came to the set the day we were shooting and offered comments. He told me the Panthers “were first and foremost a community organization and we welcomed people of other races who came by.” They took donations from prominent white liberals, like Leonard Bernstein. And he said we represented the organization in a way that hadn’t been used in films before. And there’s comic relief here too, because Sam is speaking these simple truths, awkwardly… Though Sam wanted to effect some fundamental change in society, the violence ends up being tragic and senseless.
PM: What do you make of Byck’s 1974 assassination attempt being so soon forgotten?
NM: And by the time it was reported as an assassination attempt, Watergate was in full swing. As well, there was no longer a threat to the president, and television news was different then: it was on once, and for half an hour at night. And it was far better quality, no sound bites, no sensationalizing repetition, less corporate control, more in depth and less fearful in the reporting. When I went through all that, I realized we’ve really lost the notion of the Fourth Estate. Now if you start digging, the handlers and the guard dogs jump in on you.
PM: So, how ooky was it when you were researching and discovered the real Byck?
NM: I don’t believe in destiny, but maybe I was supposed to tell this story. We had finished a draft, but then when we got the FBI files, we found details that matched, strangely, like we had Sam sitting at the edge of his bed in his BVDs, and then we read the report of what Sam was wearing, when his body was found in the cockpit, and it was BVDs. And people have asked me how this current administration mirrors the Nixon administration, and if we had made the film in 1999, we would have missed that. So then you think, maybe things happen for a reason.
PM: I would imagine that some viewers resist trying to understand a hijacker.
NM: Usually, filmmakers are trying to inject seriousness and relevance into discussions of their films. But I have the opposite problem, which is to point out the great performances and the humor. I’ve made the kind of film that appeals to me, it keeps me thinking, but also makes me feel like I’m a fly on the wall.
PM: The film maintains Sam’s perspective, asking viewers to rethink their own allegiance to him early on, perhaps empathize with someone who would now be called a “terrorist.”
NM: My cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and I thought the success of the film depended on people being willing and able to take the journey with this character, so we decided to make it a singular point of view movie. He’s all about the performance and boring inside of this character, so he didn’t need to find ways to shoot bright open vistas, but embraced the interiority. That long scene where Sam is applying for the SBA loan, with Nick Searcy behind the desk. I wondered how we were going to keep this interesting, and [Lubezki] literally looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Point the camera at Sean.” That’s a beautiful answer to get from a cinematographer. Even though it doesn’t look like a handheld film, because we shot pretty classically and the handheld is pretty steady, it allowed us to have [Lubezki] breathe with the scene. Also, we saved the close-ups for Sean, so when you’re going into a set of eyes, extremely subjective, it’s only for him. And whenever he’s looking at someone else, part of Sean’s shoulder is in the shot, which means that Sean is in every shot of the film. And I have to say, that man worked his ass off and was tremendous to work with.
PM: And, it took a long time to get this film made, and Penn was involved from early on.
NM: People in Hollywood don’t want to make films that go at issues of society and politics, because they want a guaranteed return. That’s why we need an independent cinema, to avoid being consumed by groupthink. The studios now have independent arms, but there’s still some material that they can’t touch, with shareholders to consider. With Sean and Don Cheadle, on the first morning, I did what a lot of people would do, I was watching him and thinking, “Wow, that’s Sean Penn!” Then I realized, I had people depending on me, and snapped out of it. But even with a cast like this, it was a film I couldn’t make with a studio. I’m sure there are liberals in the media, but it’s corporate media, and it’s reduced to entertainment, and they’re competing for shares instead of competing for news. I think there’s trepidation to go up against the mainstream. There’s not a clear cut separation. It’s the same in Hollywood, everybody’s in bed with everybody.
PM: Sam is sort of overcome by corporate structures, increasingly unable to see the value in surviving day to day.
NM: He can’t see the practical. Bonny [Cheadle] sees that you can’t care about the global at the expense of the people right in front of you. When you lose sight of the day to day stuff, it’s when you start losing your humanity. Sam is struggling to reclaim a shattered self-esteem, and he takes everything personally. When a spirit is crushed it becomes dangerous.
PM: And everywhere he looks, there’s a tv set that reinforces his depression.
NM: Television is still a relatively recent phenomenon. By virtue of sitting in our living rooms, tv extends our environment globally, and people get frustrated that they have no control over what’s unfolding in front of them. When you combine that with personal failings or personal hopelessness or personal instability, it becomes combustible. Though it’s not enunciated in the film because we’re telling it from his point of view, he’s suffering, mentally.
PM: Television has also become a means of governance, pitching ideology like product. That’s why Nixon is so resonant here, because could be so notoriously bad at television, though he developed a way to use it.
NM: And today, I see Bush the Second as a deeply insecure man, who masks that by talking, which turns into a sort of flailing about. What I started to feel watching Nixon’s speeches is that Nixon would have survived his second term if he’d had the handlers that Bush has now. Nixon was essentially lawyering his own case, very poorly. It’s a different day. Someone has said that the Nixon images throughout the movie are surreal, or hyperreal, but he was on tv all the time.