Directed by Niels Mueller
Written by Niels Mueller and Kevin Kennedy
– Sean Penn as Samuel Bicke
– Naomi Watts as Marie Bicke
– Don Cheadle as Bonny Simmons
– Jack Thompson as Jack Jones
– Brad Henke as Martin Jones
In 1974, Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn) took a gun to the Baltimore-Washington Airport with the intent of hijacking a plane, crashing it into the White House, and killing President Nixon. Yep, 27 years prior to Condi Rice’s statement that such a thing was “inconceivable.” In a panic, Bicke instead shot a security officer, ran down the tunnel, and barricaded himself on board, but only after senselessly shooting the co-pilot. Locked inside the aircraft with only a pilot and several screaming passengers, Bicke is eventually wounded by snipers, shortly after which he turns the gun on himself. In the span of a few minutes — during which one of the most inept plans ever devised unfolds — we witness the end of a sad, desperate life; a man for whom no other exit would have made sense, as the slick fulfillment of one’s desires would have smacked of poetry. Better to die without exactly understanding what one has done; as if, by the conclusion of the affair, one is genuinely puzzled about the initial trigger. History little noticed or has cared to remember this man, certainly because the assassination attempt was aborted before anyone could possibly know there was such a plan. There was no deflected pistol at the last moment, nor was there the dramatic leap to tackle the suspect. Bicke’s plane, after all, hadn’t even left the terminal. Given Bicke’s state of mind by the end, it’s likely that had the plane departed, it would have immediately crashed, leaving only a few dead, rather than a government in crisis. It was less an assassination plot than something scribbled on a cocktail napkin after one too many. It’s what we’d expect with a man like Sam.
Even knowing these events ahead of time (recreated much as they actually occurred), the final scenes create genuine tension; tightly turning the screws and twisting our assumption about how this might turn out. At that moment, the idea even creeps in that it might be a delight to have the poor slob get away with it. But that’s the movies, right? Here, the delusions of grandeur immediately disintegrate and become pathetic farce. Nevertheless, there was something moving about Sam’s death, only not in the way that you’d expect. Sam is far from noble and certainly not appealing, but we understand his passions, even if they’re lacking coherence and direction. It’s too easy to identify with what we’d like to be, that is, if we even recognize that we haven’t yet attained the ideal. But it’s far more difficult to empathize with the type of man we work diligently to avoid becoming. Sam lacks all the conventional means of socialization — he’s too honest, which quickly becomes self-righteousness, and he takes life’s failures as “proof” of the outside world’s complicity in his downfall — and he’s obscenely myopic in a way seemingly unique to the assassin (even a wannbe). They claim to be committing an extreme act for the good of all, yet they made the mistake of confusing personal woes with the state of the world. I’m upset, so why not the rest of you? It’s the sociopath as martyr.
And Sam’s heart isn’t really in it anyway; it’s just his last, pathetic cry in the dark for a life that would have been better not having been lived at all. There’s a failed marriage, a sagging career, and worst yet, a refusal on the part of the world to comply with his humble requests. And when all he asks for is the establishment of a permanent global justice, well, we understand his sense of betrayal. Think big, and you’ll be disappointed in as grandiose a fashion. And yet, Sam is an assassin without ideology; a madman without a discernable cause. He’s in pain, but the only lasting cure involves a dissolution of the self. In fact, his stabs at relevance — targeting the powerful like Nixon, or businessmen who insist on daily duplicity to advance the march of the dollar — fail to convince anyone, least of all himself. It’s all a pretext; a ruse. Grand gestures remove the sting of narcissism, which is why these gun-wielding fanatics are best left to the romantics. We’d hate to believe that history can be so dramatically altered by those nursing little more than a grudge. Revolution, man, not an emotionally jarring childhood. Surely we didn’t suffer for your “issues.”
Why, then, tell the tale of this insignificant man; this failed salesman who tried to understand compromise and the rules of the game, only to finally accept that for those lacking opportunity, visibility, or talent, there is no other way but through fire? But nothing director Niels Mueller does is by the book. We’d like to believe that Sam’s plan is set in motion by the failure to secure a small business loan (he wants to operate a mobile tire shop, which, as presented, is actually not a bad idea), but Sam’s reaction to a rejection letter is so understated that he might as well be losing at solitaire. On the other hand, he wildly overreacts to a televised image of Nixon while at work. Sam tried to specify a cause and alleviate it through violence, but it’s just his general state of being trying to make sense of outright confusion. Like most of us, after all. Sam, then, is important by virtue of his anonymity; his “regular” status whereby one human being after the next is simply incapable of understanding the sheer fact of being alive. What does it all mean? Why must it be endured exactly as it is? There’s nothing in his daily affairs that could ever provide an answer. Imagine, then, not being equipped to handle such powerlessness.
I’m not sure Mueller intentionally made a film about an Everyman who defines our daily grind, but it had that effect. From the music to the lighting, this hushed, quiet journey of success and (mostly) failure had all the makings of an early 1970s work; a film that had the drive to comment on our life and times, but without the gimmicks and trappings of a morality tale. The world pushes our noses in the dirt, but them’s the breaks. Solutions are two doors down. Pauline Kael might toss off a “fashionable pessimism” remark to deflate any pretension, but those films (and this one) work in spite (and often because) of it. Symbols, metaphors, and relevance reigned, but character could be so much more, even if he (or the occasional Bonnie) usually expired by gunfire. And here, I let the film wash over me; it soothed as it edged me into discomfort, letting me follow not a plot, but a slow burn of feeling. Penn’s talent is so overwhelming that he’s one of the few actors who can remain a mammoth star throughout, but force his characters to fight and overcome that same celebrity. Perhaps Penn has played the disgruntled, brooding type too often, but why not hand the ball to your best closer? From Sam’s every action — pathetic flirtations, spying on his ex-wife, even shaving — he never seems completely, or even partially, at ease. His fixations lead him to make these embarrassing and self-destructive decisions, but he’s never fully involved in their execution. It’s like he spent days constructing big plans, only to hope that someone would take over while he lurked in the shadows.
What the hell is this film, anyway? A loner gets pissed, meets with rejection once too often, then brings about yet another tragedy at the barrel of a gun? What else is new in America after that day in Dallas? Mueller’s film might appear to make parallels with Nixon and the current Bush regime (listen closely to the speech about the president as salesman, or Sam’s comment “Certainty is the disease of kings”), but that’s just us looking for the next exposé. Instead, it’s a work of radical simplicity. In the opposite direction of an Oliver Stone, Mueller has stripped away the comforting complexities of conspiracy and brought individual agency back to the game. Not that Sam doesn’t have a point about “them”, though. Slavery never really went away, as he says; it’s only been redefined using the term “employee.” Yes, it’s all about the money. Always has been, friends. And no, she won’t give you a second chance, especially because your second chance is more like your fifth. And the workplace is no arena for taking a stand. Punch your clock, smile for the customer, and lie down like a lamb when it’s all said and done. And if you’re feeling restless, listen to those self-help tapes that inform you, “You only have as much power as you think you have.” In other words, Sam thought like a loser and became one by default. He never really bought into the dream he claims to want.
I’d hate to turn this film into a simple parable of our times, or a meditation on anything that might be confused for sociological analysis. There’s merit to the idea that Sam is who most of us might become given the right opportunity (how many outbursts have been thwarted by last-minute interventions), and that’s enough. Sam’s life is so typical, in fact, that we might be uncomfortable with its implications. The absence of back-story even fits this idea, as we’d likely be capable of filling in the gaps ourselves. He was once married, but we can’t fathom the courtship. He has several children, but we’re unsure we could ever envision mirth and play. And how has he ever held a job? Abuse? Mental illness? A genuine social statement rather than hope for eternal infamy? The title leads us to believe that there is something more at work; a work of paranoia and intrigue with adventure, gadgets, and men in dark glasses. But it’s all so non-descript. Sam might hope for the importance of what seems promised, but in the end, it’s an anecdote. A mere fading away. He never had a chance.