History Lesson

Tricky Dick Flicks

The trouble with Nixon movies (including Sean Penn’s new one).

Penn’s Bicke personifies Nixonian despair

The films in which Richard Nixon has been a character, an icon, a point of reference, or a joke include Nixon, Dick, Secret Honor, All the President’s Men, The Killing Fields, The Parallax View, The Ice Storm, Forrest Gump, The Buena Vista Social Club, Point Break, Maid in Manhattan, Tricia’s Wedding, Sleeper, Missing, The Big Lebowski, Shampoo, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. * To name but a few.

Not many of these movies have featured Nixon as a main character. And among those that have done so, only a few—notably Philip Baker Hall’s volcanic Nixon in Secret Honor (1984)—have risen above David Frye-style mimicry or hackneyed villainy. Why should this be? In his virtuosic new book Nixon at the Movies, Boston Globe reporter Mark Feeney nails down part of the problem: “As Oliver Stone found out, the movies can hardly do justice to Nixon, for nothing they can show can provide weirder or more compelling images than did the man’s own overwhelming actuality.” (Philip Roth made a similar point about Nixon in 1961, using him as an example of someone who was “so fantastic, so weird and astonishing, that I found myself beginning to wish I had invented” him.)

It’s not surprising, then, that the 37th president most often figures in cinema not as a character but as a touchstone of an era of frustration and corruption in which the American Dream seemed to be grinding to a halt. One classic example is Constantin Costa-Gavras’ Missing (1982), about the plight of a left-wing American journalist killed in Chile in 1973 by a U.S.-supported right-wing junta. In the film, a large official portrait of Nixon hangs prominently in the climactic scene, as the U.S. ambassador baldly lies to the missing journalist’s father. In Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), which is set on Election Day, 1968, Nixon’s image pops up on TV screens throughout the film as an omen of America’s darkening future. It is in this vein that Tricky Dick appears in The Assassination of Richard Nixon, a movie that opens this week.

Thankfully, Feeney doesn’t focus narrowly on Nixon in the movies, so he never gets bogged down explaining the symbolism obvious in some of these films. Instead, Feeney construes his subject far more broadly—hence, Nixon at the movies. Feeney uses many films in which Nixon isn’t referenced at all, from Double Indemnity to The Conversation, as lenses for interpreting the president and his times. And most originally, he ponders Nixon’s infatuation with the silver screen, revealing the loner president to be a compulsive moviegoer who watched more than 500 pictures while in office. “The moviegoer’s fundamental yearning and loneliness,” he writes, “… find an unmistakable embodiment in Nixon.”

The Assassination of Richard Nixon, the debut film from director Niels Mueller, does traffic in Nixonian cliché, but it would surely have provided some rich material for Feeney. For just as in Shampoo, Nixon’s flickering visage on the TV screen recurs as a trope in Assassination, signaling a distant and menacing power whose influence permeates the characters’ world.

Assassination clearly owes many debts to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). For starters, there’s the last name of Sean Penn’s Sam Bicke, the film’s aspiring assassin. And although Nixon didn’t figure explicitly in Scorsese’s film, critic David Thomson, for one, glimpsed his shadow in it. “Put it like this,” Thomson wrote (in a quotation Feeney reprints), “two people—Richard Nixon and Travis Bickle—got away with things in the mid-seventies that should not have passed.” In Assassination, similarly, Penn’s Bicke is nearly a Nixon doppelgänger, a struggling, friendless loser who can’t get over his resentment of those who have it easier than he does. Both men, in a bid for immortality, tape themselves, only to have their recordings serve as the ultimate self-incrimination.

Both are bad salesmen, too. Where Nixon inspired the joke, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Bicke is a down-on-his-luck, inept office-furniture huckster going through a divorce who can’t accept or cope with the mounting setbacks and small humiliations in his life: his wife’s wish to be rid of him; the lies he must tell customers to sell his wares; the Small Business Administration’s rejection of his application for a loan to start his own company. Even his boss’s demand that he shave his mustache stings. So he decides to hijack a plane and fly it into the White House to kill the president.

Yet if Assassination’s story is trite, it does successfully evoke the dead-end frustration that Nixon’s presidency embodied in the early 1970s—a time now safely enough in the past to move beyond nostalgia and into history. The despair of the years from 1963 to about 1975—the years from Dallas to Watergate—seemed to induce in many Americans a shocking readiness to turn to assassination as an answer to personal or political problems. Everyone remembers or knows about the shootings of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King, and George Wallace, and probably also the attempts on Gerald Ford’s life in September 1975. But Nixon had his would-be assassins—and not only Samuel J. Byck, as his name was really spelled. In November 1968, three Yemeni men were arrested for conspiring to kill the newly elected president, and in August 1973 the Secret Service discovered a scheme to murder him on a visit to New Orleans.

The frequency of such assassination plots in these years wasn’t mere coincidence; it was one of the scarier symptoms of the erosion of the traditional bonds of political authority that led to Nixon’s ouster. On both political extremes, violence seemed like the best way out of a bad fix. The paranoid Nixon and his paranoid staffers mirrored the fringes of the antiwar left: Each side dreaded attacks from the other, and each used that fear to justify its own embrace of violence. White House aides, even professorial types like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, understandably capitulated to doomsday scenarios involving radicalism—”We have simply got to assume that in the near future there will be terrorist attacks on … members of the Cabinet, the Vice President, and the President himself,” he wrote in a memo—while underground papers brimmed with blasts at Nixon, the FBI, and the police for employing force as a routine instrument of political repression. Violence was as American as apple pie—on this much H. Rap Brown and Nixon could agree.

The Assassination of Richard Nixon only touches on the period’s broader political climate, as when, in one series, Bicke flirts with joining the Black Panthers as an outlet for his frustration. But if the film’s politics are underdeveloped, Penn’s portrayal of Bicke is rewarding as a study in psychology. Penn makes palpable the loneliness and desperation that overcome Bicke as his life falls apart, making violence an appealing option. In one dark scene, Bicke readies himself for what he deludedly hopes will be his history-making feat by breaking into his ex-wife’s house, finding his trusty old golden retriever—at this point his sole remaining friend—and shooting him.

In Nixon at the Movies, Feeney describes how the 1999 comedy Dick underscores Nixon’s friendlessness by showing him unable to get his own dog’s name right. (He calls King Timahoe “Checkers.”) Recalling Harry Truman’s quip that those who want a friend in Washington should get a dog, Feeney observes that Nixon couldn’t even find companionship in man’s time-honored best friend. Nixon, he writes, “was alone, so alone.” Sam Bicke is just as lonely but far less powerful. Like a lot of Nixon movies, Assassination relies too much on easy symbolism. Yet in Sam Bicke, a wretched and deranged furniture salesman, Mueller has nonetheless found a fitting metaphor for Richard Nixon’s America, a landscape of isolation, violence, and encroaching despair.

Correction, Dec. 29, 2004: This article originally misstated the title of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)