The Assassination of Richard Nixon  (2004) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a fictionalized version of a real-life story about a sad, wretched man named Sam Byck, an unemployed tire salesman who intended to kill Richard Nixon by hijacking an airliner and flying it into the White House. While still on the ground, Byck shot and killed one of the pilots on the Delta flight, wounded another, then grabbed a nearby passenger and ordered her to "fly the plane". The airport police finally gunned Byck down through the closed door of a jetliner filled with passengers.

Researchers found that Byck had revealed his entire plan in a tape recording he had sent to news columnist Jack Anderson. They found that he had been arrested protesting in front of the White House in a Santa suit, and that the Secret Service had first identified him as a crackpot many years earlier when he had first threatened Nixon, whom he blamed for the fact that the SBA had denied him a loan. As the puzzle started to come together, it turned out that Byck had also sent bizarre tape recordings to various other public figures including Dr Jonas Salk and Leonard Bernstein. (Byck finished the Bernstein tape by singing the I Like to Live in America song from West Side Story.)

The Assassination of Richard Nixon is a tragic film about a man who might have had a very decent life if he had simply stopped blaming people for his problems and just worked hard at trying to do a job well, any job. Because he blamed every personal failure on external circumstances and vague conspiracies, and because he was a truly strange man who was stressful to deal with, he was eventually written off by everyone who might have loved him, including his wife and his brother. His assassination attempt was just another example of Byck's bungling.  Obviously, his lunacy prevented him from seeing that a plane can't even get off the ground if one shoots the pilots, but what is more frightening is the fact that he might have succeeded with a hijacking if he had waited until the plane was aloft, then shot the co-pilot to demonstrate his willingness to kill. He probably would not have been able to get a pilot to fly into the White House, but he would undoubtedly have caused the deaths of everyone on that plane. Fortunately, he was incompetent, and the lives of all those passengers were spared.

In summary, Byck was an uneducated, humorless, divorced man with knee-jerk liberal beliefs and a hair trigger temper. He wrote naive, idealistic letters to public figures and over time he built up an irrational hatred for the President of the United States.

Wow. How did they ever think of Sean Penn to play that role?

Do you want to know the strangest thing about that casting? Although Penn is basically playing himself, Sam Byck is portrayed as a pathetic soul, a loser unable to take any responsibility for his own failures, and a man with some rather obvious symptoms of mental illness. I wonder if Penn is so lacking in self-insight that he can't see himself in this character. Astounding. Can anybody name another instance of an actor playing himself as a fool, other than in comedies? I can't think of a single one. Oh, sure, Bill Shatner and David Hasselhoff have built second careers entirely around making fun of themselves, but the key word there is "fun".

Anyway, setting aside the curiosity of casting, this film is fundamentally Taxi Driver without the muscles. In fact, changing the real Sam Byck's name to Bicke for this movie seems to be a deliberate allusion to DeNiro's Taxi Driver character, Travis Bickle. Why else make that spelling change? The parallel between the two films is further reinforced by a scene in which Bicke talks to a mirror.

The film, having no clear point nor entertainment value, is essentially just a character study -  a one man showcase for Sean Penn, as Taxi Driver was for DeNiro. The supporting cast is good, but often underused. Two very good actors, Don Cheadle (as Bicke's last friend) and Naomi Watts (as Bicke's wife), are completely wasted in repetitious one-note roles. The friend's entire role in The Assassination of Richard Nixon consists of repeating some variations on, "Let's just take it easy now," while Mrs. Bicke's entire role seems to be to find different ways to recoil from her creepy ex-husband without setting him off. One other excellent performer (Jack Thompson) gets a much meatier role as Bicke's bullying boss.

The voting and "user comments" at IMDb represent a sad example of how that particular site is vulnerable to insincere marketing and ballot-stuffing. In this case, IMDb's algebraic system caught the obvious "ballot stuffing" and reduced a padded score down to a reasonable number, but IMDb has no mechanism to prevent "comment stuffing." The entire comments section for this film seems to be filled with obviously bogus praise expressed in the wildly exaggerated style of flacks: "best film of the year", "the most moving film in years", and so forth. Upon closer scrutiny, one discovers that the vast majority of these hyperbolic comments come from people who created accounts at IMDb just to comment on this film, and have never commented on any other film. Hmmmm ...

So what do regular people really think about it? Well, the top 1000 voters at IMDb, film lovers who are not promoting an agenda, rate this film a sub-mediocre 5.1 out of 10. Yahoo voters come in with a similar C+. Both of those scores indicate that it is an average film, perhaps with some excellent attributes. I agree.


  • There is an unidentified stripper who shows one breast - to a camera outside the door of the club - all in a short scene which seems unrelated to the main narrative.

The Critics Vote ...

  • Super-panel consensus: two and a half stars. Roger Ebert 3/4, James Berardinelli 2.5/4

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. Through January 9th. Opening weekend: $37,000. Max distribution: 32 screens.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. The presentation is good, but the film has no real entertainment value, and no real point. It seems headed to the same obscurity which history has accorded its subject.

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