This is a good country maestro, filled with good people. But what good is good in times like these?
— Sam Bicke (Sean Penn), The Assassination of Richard Nixon
“Just tell them that. Tell them my reasons, tell them why.” During the first moments of The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Sam Bicke (Sean Penn) speaks into his tape recorder. Addressing the man he admires most, “maestro” Leonard Bernstein, he asks for compassion and connection, to be remembered and explained. Because he feels like a “grain of sand,” constrained and even “punished” by a cruel hierarchy that oppresses and seprates individuals, Sam asks Bernstein to tell his story for him, knowing that he will not return from the mission he is undertaking, namely, to kill the president.
Sam’s plan, undertaken in 1974 (and based on a true story, featuring one Samuel Byck), is at once elaborate and myopic. It’s also rather alarmingly prescient. He means to hijack a plane from BWI airport in Baltimore and crash it into the White House. His target seems obvious to Sam, as Nixon is, during this moment of Watergate investigation, ubiquitous on television. In this way, the president reminds Sam daily of his own failures, especially as a family man (Nixon appears on tv, waving at crowds with his wife, proclaiming that he’s not a crook, dancing at his daughter Tricia’s wedding) and as a salesman. Even as Sam is unable to grasp basic elements of salesmanship at the office furniture store where he works, Nixon appears on multiple screens, a wholly effective salesman who has, as Sam’s employer notes, sold precisely the same story to voters two years in a row, that he would end the war in Vietnam.
In the face of such deception and gullibility, Sam ponders his own situation: he can’t sell Naugahyde chairs, and can’t get a Small Business Loan to start his dream company (a mobile tire supply, using a repainted school bus for deliveries). His older brother Julius (Michael Wincott), a tire salesman rejects him (“You’re a very strange man Samuel, I’ve always known that”), and his estranged wife Marie (Naomi Watts) leaves him, taking their three children to live with another man (who drives a Cadillac, sign of all things excessive and unattainable). Sam’s boss, Jack (Jack Thompson), initially tells him he “smells” like success, hands him how-to books by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale (“You gotta believe,” he oozes, his meaty son and fellow salesman Marty [Brad Hencke] grinning in agreement), but Sam can’t abide the mendacity he sees as the basis of “success.” Peering into his own future, he sees only perpetual disappointment and more loss.
Progressively more incapable of mediating his own behavior or comprehending the many ways that “sales” permeate daily life, Sam seeks connections on tv. Here he lands on an interview with Black Panther David Hilliard, asserting the right of the “masses” to self-determination. Moved to near-action, Sam heads to the local BPP office, where he meets with Harold (Mykelti Williamson). “I know what it’s like to be lied to, and to not be respected and to be treated like a great big nothing,” he insists, his face tense with eagerness to please. Though he suggests that “we’re in the same boat,” Harold sees otherwise: “You own the boat.” Relentless, and sure of his emotional, if not precisely political, affiliation, Sam offers money ($107) and, not a little ironically, marketing advice in the form of a new name for the group, not intimidating, but inclusive, the “zebras,” that is, black and white. Harold nods, takes his money, and thanks him.
Sam is similarly clueless when it comes to his wife. Though he hopes impossibly that he can win Marie back, she’s alarmed by his clinginess, his dropping by the house unannounced (in violation of their separation agreement). And so she stops taking his calls, sending Sam into his own odd deep end. The only way he can frame this turn of events is that he’s been summarily ejected from the ideal scenario, that he’s again the victim, powerless, pathetic, and increasingly enraged.
The man caught in between Sam’s efforts is his best friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). While he’s agreed to help with Sam’s tire delivery company, but in the meantime, Bonny’s got his own mechanics business to run. Business is not personal, he insists when Sam complains about Jack: “This guy’s your boss, if he wants to be an asshole, that’s something you just might have to let him do.” When Sam comes by Bonny’s garage one day and finds a handgun in his desk drawer, he trains it on an irate customer, abusing Bonny outside the window. The guy leaves, Bonny approaches Sam, and now the gun’s on him, the camera gazing on him as if down Travis Bickle’s barrel. It’s clear at this point — if it wasn’t when Sam came for dinner and awkwardly asked Bonny’s son Joey (Derek Greene) how he’d feel if his father “went away” — that Bonny’s practical mind is no longer holding sway in the friendship.
And so Sam turns to his other outlet, his tapes to Bernstein (who also famously contributed to the BPP), as he formulates a plan for revenge and history-making. This effort is at once aggressive and mournful, a combination underscored throughout the film by the “maestro”‘s compositions on the soundtrack. “I consider myself a grain of sand,” Sam says, looking scraggly and sad. “On this beach called America, there are 211 million grains of sand, three billion on the beach we call earth. If I am lucky, the action that I am about to take will show the powerful that even the least grain of sand has in him the power to destroy them.”
He finds this power in destruction, modeled on tv. Spending more and more time in his apartment, Sam appears repeatedly with remote in hand, monitor glare on his face. He’s suitably horrified when the tv reflects his own sense of disarray. In addition to car ads and Nixon spots, he sees news items concerning the standoff at Wounded Knee and eventually, the landing of a helicopter on the White House lawn by a disgruntled Army helicopter mechanic, PFC Robert Preston. And Sam is struck by an idea, a seemingly simple and legible way to make his discontent known.
Even as Sam unravels, the film doesn’t judge him, but rather adopts his perspective, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s remarkably agile camera always watching him, steadily and too closely. This proximity not only reveals Sam’s turmoil (no one shows psychic gears grinding as effectively as Penn), but also asks viewers to reconsider their own parts in such pervasive, ongoing loss. If The Assassination of Richard Nixon doesn’t precisely ask you to “sympathize” with its subject, it does show how despair and hopelessness drive him to his decisions, and in this way, alludes to grounds of terrorism as well. Feeling overlooked and abused, Sam has no stake in cultural or political community. And it makes no difference: one of the most striking images comes at film’s end, when Bonny, at work, passes by a television news spot reporting Sam’s death. Bonny doesn’t even see it. He’s got bills to pay.