Wednesday 2 February 2011
Death of a salesman
I have a fairly substantial collection of DVDs, movies that I have built up over time, freebies given away by newspapers, most of them never watched. I was flicking through them recently, intending to give most away. I paused at one called The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a 2004 American movie starring Sean Penn.
I can’t even remember when I got this – I can’t even remember it on general release - but I decided to watch it because I was intrigued by the title – a non-existent assassination – and because think Penn is a first class actor. I am so glad I did, not because it’s a great movie – it’s far from that – but because, aside from a bravura performance by Penn, it told me about a little piece of history of which I was completely unaware.
Directed by Niels Mueller, an independent film maker, The Assassination of Richard Nixon is based on the real life plans of one Samuel Byck, an unemployed tire salesman, who attempted to hijack a plane in February 1974, with the intention of flying it into the White House and thus kill the man he preceived as an avatar for all that was wrong with life. The details of the story were allegedly backpedalled in case anyone else got the same crazy idea, a sublimated footnote in history which only acquired proper significance after 9/11.
In the movie the name has been changed from Byke to Bike, supposedly to avoid offending the living relatives of the failed and dead assassin, as if the substitution of a vowel for a consonant makes the slightest bit of difference. Well, it does, but very, very slight!
Penn is truly superb in the part, totally different in every way from his usual onscreen character, at once diffident and subdued, at twice angry and explosive. Bike is the kind of man who might make normal losers feel good about themselves: he is a failure in absolutely everything – in marriage, in business, in life itself. It’s certainly possible to feel sorry for him. In one scene he goes to visit his family only to visit the dog! But Bick is such a hopeless case, unable to move on, unable to take charge of his life, constantly projecting his inadequacies on to others. He is as salesman by profession, though he has the kind of personality totally unsuitable for work that inevitably involves a high degree of dissimulation if not outright lies.
That’s Sam Bick’s problem- he is an honest man, or tries to be, a man unsettled by the hypocrisy with which he is surrounded. In the furniture store where he works we see Jack Jones, his boss – a great performance by Jack Thompson – offer him various dreadful motivational books and tapes. When Bick still fails to grasp the ethos, Jones later points to Richard Nixon, a recurring presence on bar TV screens, citing him as an example of the prefect salesman. Why? Because in the presidential election of 1968 he sold America the idea of ending the war in Vietnam, and then failed to deliver. Nothing deterred, he sold exactly the same idea in 1972!
So, there you have it: Bick, increasingly frustrated by the sheer dishonesty in which America is drowning, – this is the time of Watergate – has a target for all of his anger, all of his defeats, all of his humiliations – the President himself.
This is a movie made by some truly first class performances, not just by Penn and Jones but also by Don Cheadle as Bonny Simmons, Bick’s friend and potential business partner, and Naomi Watts as Marie, his estranged wife. There are some wonderful scenes, including a moment of perfect black comedy when Bick goes to the Baltimore office of the Black Panthers, a militant and paradoxically racist organisation, offering a donation as well as a spot of advice – if only they would change their name to the Zebras they would attract angry white support along with the black!
But the movie itself stops short of being an outstanding depiction of the American Nightmare because it inevitably invites comparisons with others that explored the same theme. I think it can more than hold itself up against Falling Down, in which Michael Douglas plays a similar character as Bick, a frustrated white man driven mad by modern life and personal failure.
What it cannot stand up against is Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece, which also touches on the same themes, social and personal alienation, though the madness here has an unintended positive outcome. The fact the lead character in Taxi Driver –played by Robert de Niro – is called Travis Bickle (possibly based on the real-life Byke?) makes Bick and The Assassination of Richard Nixon look slightly derivative. More than that, the latter has little of the brooding introspection and the marvellous pathos of the former. All losers are equal but some are clearly more equal than others.