Death of a Salesman

In 1975, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme pointed a loaded handgun in the direction of President Gerald Ford while Ford was visiting Sacramento to address the California Legislature. She failed to fire the weapon before being apprehended by the Secret Service, but why Fromme, a member of the Manson family, chose Ford instead of Richard Nixon is one of history's great mysteries. It was Nixon who famously declared Charles Manson guilty, after all.

Ford actually survived two assassination attempts – one for each year he held office. Nixon, arguably the most polarizing and passionately hated president of the second half of the 20th century, remained relatively unscathed. But it's not for a lack of trying, as director Niels Mueller's film The Assassination of Richard Nixon points out.

Fortunately for Nixon, his lone, known would-be assassin was a failed Philadelphia tire salesman named Samuel Byck. Byck, who had been rejected for a government loan by the Small Business Administration, concocted an eerily prescient plot to kill the 37th president by hijacking an airliner and forcing the pilot to fly it into the White House. But Byck's plot, literally and figuratively, never got off the ground. On Feb. 22, 1974 he attempted to take control of an airplane; before it left the tarmac he was shot and wounded by police, and committed suicide. It was later discovered that he had sent a taped confession to Washington Post journalist Jack Anderson, and had sent a number of lunatic ramblings to celebrities, such as his idol Leonard Bernstein, over the years. Byck seemed fated to a bottom-dwelling position in the annals of presidential history.

He would have stayed had James Oliver Huberty not killed 21 people in a San Ysidro, Calif., McDonald's on July 18, 1984. Or rather, had Huberty's rampage not affected a UCLA film student waiting for his first screenplay idea to strike.

"I was in my earlier 20s and it was one of the first incidents of this kind that came to my attention as an adult," says Mueller in a phone interview from his Glendale home. "It just horrified me, and I was thinking this guy must be somebody that belongs to another species. I just didn't understand the human ability to lose all empathy."

Mueller began taking notes, starting a diary that was the genesis of a film that would be released nearly two decades later. "I started exploring a character. I wanted to understand; how does somebody go from point A to Point B, with Point B where they lash out in violence, indiscriminate violence?"

A character began to emerge: a man, separated from his wife and child, who takes a new job in sales to re-establish himself financially, and more importantly to re-establish himself in his wife's eyes. "I had him obsessing and talking about the American Dream, and I had him talking into a tape recorder, although I hadn't figured out why or how to justify the tape recorder."

Mueller's American dreamer formulates a plan to kill a sitting president, one not known as a target of assassination attempts. The working title of the film became "The Assassination of L.B.J." until Mueller, perusing the books at a Los Angeles library, found a book with a slim chapter on a real-life failed salesman, separated from his family, who tries to kill a sitting president by flying an airplane into the White House and talked into a tape recorder for the last several weeks of his life. Mueller moved the time of his script forward 10 years, named his character Samuel Bicke, moved the locale to Baltimore and changed the working title.

Mueller enlisted the aid of film-school friend Kevin Kennedy to write a formal draft, which they finished during the final years of the Clinton administration. Another UCLA grad, Sideways director Alexander Payne, helped get the film fast-tracked to production, with Y tu mamá también director Alfonso Cuaron and producer Jorge Vergara stepping in to secure financing and see the film through to the finish. Perhaps most importantly, Sean Penn took on the role of Bicke, creating a borderline personality whose adherence to absolute principles of liberal idealism blinds him to the realities of his life and leads to a psychotic breakdown.

The downward spiral film – a meta-genre of sorts – is unique in that its appeal can be limited. It's uncomfortable to watch a character the audience is supposed to empathize with fall apart before your eyes. But occasionally the films can transcend that discomfort. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, albeit meant for the stage, is perhaps the most triumphant example. "That one resonates the most because Willy Loman is also someone that is an American Dreamer," says Mueller. "He's somebody who believes that the American Dream is being threatened and feels like he just hasn't gotten his piece of the pie. That has a real common thread with Sam."

Other memorable downward-spiral characters have been created by Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Stephen Lang in Last Exit to Brooklyn, Michael Douglas in Falling Down, and more recently Christian Bale in 2004's The Machinist. But Penn's performance, a 180-degree turn from his tragic lead role as a grown-up ex-hood in Mystic River, touches a nerve inflamed after the last election, as progressives banged their heads against the wall and pundits declared the Democratic Party terminally ill and on life support. His absolutist adherence to his principals and warped idealism unintentionally plugs in to the post-election malaise.

The first half of the film is marked by scenes that draw laughs as Penn reacts to the good natured berating and tough-love motivation of his boss, (veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson), constantly decries the everyday racism he feels his friend Bonny (Don Cheadle) is subjected to, and protests the short skirts his ex-wife (Naomi Watts) has to wear at work. He even makes a visit to the local Black Panther headquarters and makes a $107 donation, much to the amusement of a Panther representative (Mykelti Williamson).

Ironically, Bicke's adulation of the Panthers is reflective somewhat of the theme Tom Wolfe explored in his essay "Radical Chic." Wolfe satirized the fashionable idealism of the late '60s that led to dinner parties among the culturati – most notably Leonard Bernstein – in which it was de rigeur to invite an African-American militant.

Bernstein was a symbol of misguided idealism in Wolfe's story, but in Assassination he is a symbol of purity and honesty to a misguided idealist. While Mueller's main intention was to portray a man betrayed by his own warped sense of fairness and justice in society, the film taps into the zeitgeist of the times with dialogue that was added after the election of George Bush. While criticism of 9/11 exploitation are sure to be leveled by partisan pundits, Mueller foresees more objections to the observation made by Thompson's character while attempting to motivate Bicke, with Richard Nixon on a television in the background:

You want to know who the greatest salesman in the world is? That man right there. Right there. He sold the whole country, 200 million people, on himself. Twice. He said he would get us out of Vietnam, and what did he do? He sent 100,000 troops in and he bombed the shit out of them.
He made a promise, he didn't deliver, and then sold us on the exact same promise all over again. That's believing in yourself.
And, of course, believing in yourself is the secret to success for the man whom history is likely to judge as most polarizing president of the first half of the 21st century.
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