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Film / The Assassination of Richard Nixon

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A 2004 drama directed by Niels Mueller.

The year is 1974, and Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) is a down-on-his-luck furniture salesman. He barely sells enough to keep him in his job, he's separated from his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and facing divorce, which may in turn cause him to lose his job because his boss only believes in employing family men, and he's having trouble securing finance for the tyre sales business that he intends to set up with his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle). As he faces one setback after another, Sam becomes increasingly disillusioned at the fact that he cannot find success despite being an honest man, and soon focuses his anger on a person who has risen to the top despite being a dirty crook: President Richard Nixon. Before long, Sam hits rock-bottom, and conspires to assassinate Nixon by flying an airliner into the White House.


Based on the Real Life story of Samuel Byck, who had a slightly different surname, but had very much the same grudge against Nixon and planned to assassinate him in the manner depicted in the film.

This movie provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The real Sam was quite a bit heavier than Sean Penn.
  • Ambiguous Disorder: Though the film never really goes into it, it's clear from the start that something isn't right with Sam, who is highly neurotic and seems unable to grasp the most basic social concepts. The real Sam Byck suffered from severe depression due to his divorce and failed career, which are seen in the film.
  • Artistic License – Economics: In-universe; during his pitch to the loan company, Sam claims that the biggest draw of his proposed business is that it's so honest that it won't make any profit.
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  • Badass Mustache: Sam has one which his boss asks him to shave. He grows it again for the finale.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Despite getting shot so many times that he would probably have died anyway, Sam decides to commit suicide before the police can board the plane.
  • Black Best Friend: Bonny is this to Sam.
  • Butt-Monkey: Sam is a tragic version, almost bordering on a Deconstruction as we see the obvious serious effects his failures and bad luck have had on his mental and emotional stability.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Sam does this with a great deal of things, though probably the biggest example is failing to realise that the Black Panthers are, in fact, dedicated to action on behalf of black people.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Played with by Sam, who's too skittish (and really not quite bright enough) to come up with any detailed ideas about huge conspiracies, but nonetheless thinks everyone's out to oppress the less rich citizens, and him in particular.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Sam's attempted hijacking goes wrong very early on, when he realizes that he failed to account for the fact that he'd be patted down and have his bag checked before getting on the plane. As a result, he freaks out and shoots his way through the boarding gate, killing one of the guards in the process.
  • Downer Ending: Not only does Sam not assassinate Nixon, and ends up committing suicide after his failed hijacking attempt, but his story is shown being watched on the news by his ex-wife, his former boss, and Bonny, and none of them give a shit about it. Of course, it would probably have been a much bigger Downer Ending for the country as a whole if Sam had destroyed the White House...
  • Epic Fail: Even leaving aside how badly wrong the attempted hijacking went, as an ending caption tells us, Sam's attempt wouldn't have succeeded even if everything did go right... because Nixon wasn't in the White House that day. And even if he somehow did kill Nixon, all that Bicke would have succeeded in doing was turning him into a martyr and preventing the Watergate scandal from reaching its conclusion.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Anyone even vaguely familiar with history is probably going to remember that Richard Nixon was in fact not assassinated, and that the White House was not destroyed by having an airliner fly into it.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: Sam's shooting of his former family dog happens off screen, as does his own suicide near the end of the film. Averted when he shoots the two pilots, one fatally, and when a police offcer shoots Sam through the plane door.
  • Heroic BSoD: The treble whammy of being divorced, getting his loan rejected and the discovery of the attempted tyre theft (which in turn leads to his brother disowning him) all in the space of a few days drives Sam over the edge and leads to his assassination attempt.
  • How We Got Here: Most of the film's events are framed as being part of Sam's letter to Leonard Bernstein, which he posts shortly before his hijacking attempt near the end of the film.
  • I Have No Brother: After being subjected to a paranoid rant about how the government is oppressing poor people, Sam's brother, Julius disowns him and threatens to have him prosecuted for the attempted tyre theft if he ever contacts Julius again.
  • I Just Want to Be Special: Sam wants nothing more than to be a dynamic, successful businessman and family man like his boss and co-workers but his Depression and Paranoia make it nearly impossible. The film shows the desire for success, what happens to those who can't achieve it and how badly it can screw them up.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Though obviously he's completely off his rocker by this point, it's hard to disagree with the points that Sam makes about how Nixon succeeded despite clearly being a crook and not delivering on his promises (bear in mind that the Watergate scandal was only in its infancy during the film), and how it often just doesn't pay to be an average, honest person.
  • Just Plane Wrong: Most of the aircraft seen in the film are actually from the 1980s or later. This was unavoidable however, since the film's budget was far too small to allow contemporary planes to be CGIed in.
  • Misaimed Fandom: In-universe, Sam thinks for some bizarre reason that Leonard Bernstein will approve of his plan to assassinate Nixon.
  • Mistaken for Racist: Sam claims that the employee of Julius who spotted the tyre theft that he and Bonny were trying to commit only suspected foul play because Bonny is black, though Julius points out that even if the employee is racist, it doesn't change the fact that Sam and Bonny were trying to steal his tyres. Likewise, he tries to blame the bank's denying his loan on racism against Bonny, rather than considering that his business plan was one long train of Insane Troll Logic.
  • Never My Fault: Sam blames the bank for denying his loan on the grounds of racism. That may be true but it doesn't change just how unreliable and unstable Sam is and comes across.
  • Nice Guy: Sam was one before and the film shows an idealistic honest man trying to survive in a cynical world of opportunism and betrayal.
  • Pet the Dog: During his hijacking attempt, Sam takes a female passenger hostage and threatens to shoot her unless she helps him fly the plane. She begs for mercy, and after a few minutes, Sam lets her go. In doing so he gives the police officer who (unbeknownst to Sam) followed him down the passenger walkway a clear shot, and the officer wastes no time emptying his gun into Sam through the plane's door.
  • Psycho Ex-Girlfriend: Inverted; Sam is the psychotic one (at least, he is by the end of the film), while Marie is very much the sane one.
  • Reality Ensues: The entire hijacking attempt ends up being one long case of this trope. Sam tries to smuggle a bomb and gun on the plane, but finds that either of them would be easily discovered. He then manages to get onto the plane, but finds that the pilots can just delay him until help arrives, resulting in him freaking out and shooting one dead, further wrecking his plans. Finally, it turns out that airport police actually are equipped with weapons capable of penetrating the hull of an aircraft, and an officer shoots Sam, mortally wounding him, before Sam turns his gun on himself.
  • Shoot the Dog: Just before driving to the airport to carry out his intended hijacking, Sam stops by his former family home and kills the dog that he shared with his ex-wife, in the misguided belief that he's giving it a Mercy Kill.
  • Spiritual Successor: The film is essentially Taxi Driver for a new generation.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Actually more like 50% based on a true story. Much of Sam's backstory is tweaked and altered from that of the real Samuel Byck — Byck had four children while Sam only has two in the film; Sam's loan fiasco is implied to happen only a few weeks before the assassination attempt, while Byck's failure to secure a loan happened in 1972, two years beforehand; he threatened to assassinate Nixon shortly after his re-election, but didn't actually go through with it until much later — but the overall storyline is much the same as the real-life events, and everything that happens at the airport in the last 15 minutes or so is entirely the same as what happened in reality.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Despite the mass death his plan would cause if successfully executed, Sam genuinely believes that his plan will make America a better place for those nearer the poverty line.
  • Woobie, Destroyer of Worlds: Sam feels so utterly betrayed by his country and its broken promises and institutions that he wants to tear it all down.


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