The Assassination of Richard Nixon. (Rated A) Directed by Neils Mueller With Sean Penn, Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts and Jack Thompson.
Can Media Vilification Induce Assassination?
What Was Behind The Clinton Vilification?
This is the story of a true event based on tapes dictated to Leonard Bernstein by Samuel Byke a man who attempted to kill President Nixon by hijacking a passenger jet to crash into the White House in 1974.
Sam Byke is played flawlessly (equally as good as his Academy Award winning role in Mystic River) by Sean Penn. He is a forty four year old man who has failed at most things in life. His marriage to his wife Marie (Naomi Watts) ends in divorce although until the day he received the final decree he believed that he was going to reconcile. He fails as a salesman, first in a tire business owned by his brother Julius (Michael Wincott) then as a furniture salesman in a business owned by Jack Jones (Jack Thompson) and finally fails again when he “borrows” tires from his brother to start a tire delivery service with Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle). All the supporting actors are excellent.
The picture is a character study of Byke’s failure to succeed on all levels of life and to ultimately blame his failure on the “evils” of other men in society. His marriage to Marie fails. He fails as a salesman and tries to start a tire delivery business with Bonny Simmons by applying for a Small Business loan, which is turned down. Sam is an idealist and believes that his failures are not due to his own inadequacies but his unwillingness to be dishonest. Other salesmen are successful he believes because they lie and deceive the customer.
One day Jack Jones, his employer in the furniture business, points out that Nixon was a great salesman because he won re-election by promising for second time to end the war in Viet Nam. Thus he was re-elected on the same promise he failed to keep after he was first elected. Byke focuses on Nixon as the epitome of the frauds and cheats in this world that gain power and financial control over little men like himself (grains of sand). This occurs at the time that Nixon was being daily vilified in the press and on TV because of Watergate. Byke fixates on Nixon and intends to kill him to show that the liars and cheats of this world cannot act with impunity and must in the end answer to the honest little men (grains of sand) who also have power.
The film uses actual TV footage of Nixon and the events around his presidency like the Watergate hearings that lead Byke to focus on him and resolve to kill him as a political statement. Byke fails at the hijacking also as he is killed on the plane before it ever leaves the passenger gate.
Byke projects the cause of his failures on to others who lie and cheat their way to power and affluence. His wife Marie’s new suitor drives a Cadillac and appears to be more financially successful than Byke who could not support the family before the breakup. He is naïve and unsophisticated in his appreciation and reaction to the daily events in his life. He asks the Black Panthers to change their name to Zebras so people like him can join and seek the same economic power the Panthers seek. In the end we see through Penn’s characterization, the script (Kevin Kennedy and Neils Mueller) based on the tapes and the astute direction of Mueller that Byce is the cause of his own problems. The Cheadle character Bonny Simmons, a marginalized black auto repairman, offsets the Byke character’s paranoia by Bonny’s common sense approach to a life that is not fair. Bonny, however, recognizes one does not have to lose ones self respect and dignity because of the vicissitudes of life nor is one justified in resorting to extremes.
The Media’s Role in Assassination.
The question that is not addressed directly in the film but is raised implicitly is; what is the power of media vilification, whether just or unjust, to focus an unstable frustrated person on killing the object of the media’s vilification. Seeing this picture conjures up many other portraits describing assassins like Lee Harvey Oswald, Sirhan Sirhan, Mark Chapman, John Hinckley and James Earl Ray. All their victims were vilified in the media and espoused causes that the assassin found unacceptable. Hinckley seems to be the only one not politically motivated giving his reason for the assassination attempt on Reagan as a way of impressing Jodie Foster. His action may have been truly insane, as it seems to have no rational relationship to his obsession with Jody Foster. The other acts were a way of the assassin to make a political statement by killing a person connected with the policies or philosophy objected to and therefore while extreme and misguided they were rational and not true acts of insanity.
The Personal Vilification of William Clinton.
This film makes one wonder how many more frustrated and unsuccessful people there are out there and what it takes to trigger them to take action against a political, cultural or social leader. One recalls the massive media vilification against President Clinton which began as soon as he took office and continues today although not as intensely. His wife Hillary characterized it as a “vast right wing conspiracy.” However the more despicable and false media aspect of his vilification seems to have begun with a few extreme right wing sources. The question can be asked whether the extreme slurs and lies and the intensity of these slurs and lies were not an attempt by sophisticated media experts to trigger a character like Byke to assassinate Clinton just as Sam Byke came to focus on Nixon during the period of his intense vilification caused by the Watergate scandal.
Nixon of course was a man neither evil nor pure who tried to govern the country during tumultuous political timesand who made mistakes and suffered dearly for the consequences of his mistakes. Today he is seen as the farsighted statesman who opened up relations with China that led to the current trade partnership with the U.S. and our Far eastern allies and the stabilization of our relations with China. However at the time he was widely criticized and forced from office because of his role in the Watergate scandal.
Clinton appears to have had the political ability to gain office in spite of strong opposition and by doing so angered rightists who saw him as a threat to their economic principles. He, in fact, did raise taxes on the wealthy slightly and of course he appointed his wife Hillary to spearhead his fist term attempt to provide health care for all citizens with disastrous results. These acts and other acts angered many on the right and probably triggered the vilification. Another film, The Hunting of The President, has discussed Clinton’s unjust vilification at length and was reviewed on this site on July 26, 2004.
While Clinton was challenged on his economic or social principles his vilification was mostly based on personal grounds with books, articles and television reports portraying him as a scoundrel, cheat, womanizer and even somehow as the cause of the death of Vince Foster. Perhaps Hillary was right in saying it was a “vast right wing conspiracy” out to destroy her husband. However it was only vast in the scope of the power and money behind it. The most scurrilous and false attacks were made and financed by Richard Mellon Sciafe an heir to the Mellon fortune but others took part including Kenneth Starr, Pat Robertson and Jerry Farwell. Further the intensity of the vilification was so profound and demonizing that one wonders what the true goals of the vilification by those behind it were? Was it Clinton’s assassination by a frustrated “loser” cut from the same cloth as Byke, Oswald, Sirhan, Ray, Chapman or Hinckley who saw Clinton as evil or a worthy target to gain attention for their own shortcomings?