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The ‘phantom’ assassination

Stewart Oksenhorn

In making “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” director Niels Mueller found that truth is not always stranger than fiction. Mueller discovered that the strangest thing is when fiction inadvertently mimics truth.In the late ’90s, Mueller was working on a script titled “The Assassination of L.B.J.” The story was entirely fictitious: No one, as far as he knew, had tried to kill the 36th president of the United States. In Mueller’s imagination, his film was about “a would-be assassin whose attempt would go totally unnoticed.” His main character – who Mueller pictured in his mind speaking, for unknown reasons, into a tape recorder – would be someone “who has lost all empathy for people.”As he researched assassination attempts, Mueller stumbled across a little-known chapter in American history. In 1974, a man named Samuel Bicke, distraught over the breakup of his family and his troubles in the working world, made an attempt, ultimately thwarted, to hijack an airplane. His intention had been to crash the airliner into the White House and kill Richard M. Nixon. The initial news reports focused on Bicke as a hijacker rather than an intended assassin. But before the story could be fleshed out, the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate scandal, and the averted killing of an American president was mostly forgotten.

Realizing that the rough outline of his made-up story was actually historical fact, Mueller switched gears. He moved the year of his script from 1964 to 1974, and instead of researching various assassination efforts, focused on the actual FBI files of the attempted assassination of President Nixon.There, Mueller got another jolt. Bicke, it was noted in the files, had sent numerous messages to prominent Americans he imagined would be sympathetic to his cause, including comedian Bill Cosby, Senator Lowell Weicker and conductor Leonard Bernstein. The messages, Mueller learned, were not in the form of handwritten letters.They were tape-recordings.

Those tapes form the basis of “The Assassination of Richard Nixon,” Mueller’s intense and captivating depiction of Bicke. Despite the title – Mueller says it was sort of a leftover from his original working script, “The Assassination of L.B.J.” – the film focuses on the unraveling of Bicke that precedes the hijacking. Bicke, played with harrowing conviction by Sean Penn, begins as a troubled soul, but one with a sense of optimism to him. Though estranged from his wife (Naomi Watts) and emotionally shaky, Bicke has gotten a job as a furniture salesman, and is possessed by the idea that he can inject ethics into the business world. But as he learns that America is not built on morals – with a televised Nixon as a constant visual reminder – Bicke becomes deranged.Since the story of Bicke was little-known, Mueller’s telling is necessarily fictionalized. But he was still obsessed with capturing his character and getting the details right. “You don’t tell this kind of story after 9/11 without getting the story right,” said the 43-year-old, whose other prominent screen credit is for the screenplay of 2002’s “Tadpole.” To get as close as possible to Bicke, Mueller listened to the cache of recordings.”You build scenes from those tapes,” said Mueller. “At one point he says a friend’s son gave him a hug and if those hugs were more frequent, this wouldn’t be necessary. You get a sense of the spirit of the man from those tapes.”



Mueller whittled his script to include only those tapes sent to Bernstein. Those recordings work on several levels; as a dramatic device, an ordinary guy sending intimate messages to a famous person indicates a fragile psyche, and someone grasping for notoriety. When Bicke tells Bernstein, “Your music is pure and honest – that’s why I’ve chosen to talk to you,” we get a sense of Bicke’s ethical aspirations. And as Mueller notes, the film’s musical soundtrack can keep Bernstein as a lingering presence, even when Bicke is not addressing him.”The Assassination of Richard Nixon” has generated a fair amount of Oscar talk around Penn’s performance. (Should Penn, the Academy’s reigning best actor for his work in last year’s “Mystic River,” win the award, he would join Tom Hanks as one of only two back-to-back best actor winners.) Aside from the awards buzz, much of the chatter about the film has been about the title. “The Assassination of Richard Nixon” isn’t about the failed plot, but about what leads a man to contemplate killing the president.”I know the title is a provocation,” said Mueller. “I’d go to Kinko’s to make copies and people would always ask, ‘Oh, did somebody try to assassinate Richard Nixon?’ “Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com