Directed by Nils Mueller.
,b>Written by Nils Mueller & Kevin Kennedy.
Starring Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, Don Cheadle
American writer Chuck Palahnuik has spoken of the death of transgressive fiction post september 11th, where transgressive fiction involves characters who act badly in order to either feel more fully alive, or to make political statements (examples listed being The Monkey Wrench Gang, Fight Club, Trainspotting, and American Psycho). Palachnuik contends that publishing houses across the board in America shelved various novels due for publication because they involved acts that would be considered to fall under a general blanket of 'terrorism’. Regardless of intellectual content, books with hijackings in their plot, understandably to an extent, are judged to have no possibility for success in the marketplace.
Against this backdrop, Nils Mueller has decided to release a real life story involving a deranged plot to hijack a plane, and crash it into the White House. In a society largely obsessed by goals, achievements, and fame, Mueller, who co-wrote and directed the film, started with the idea of portraying a politically inspired failure. Death of a Salesman meets Day of the Jackal, which ends in ignominy rather than Lee Harvey Oswald’s posthumous celebrity. Originally he started the script as a complete fiction, entitled The Assassination of L.B.J., but during his research for the story he came across Sam Byck, who, in actions that uncannily mirrored Mueller’s theme, had sought to assassinate Richard Nixon.
Much of the film is based on the real life monologues sent by Byck to composer Leonard Bernstein, amongst others, with long, rambling explanations for his proposed actions. Into this, Sean Penn has stepped and masterfully created a persona that is in turn sympathetic, ludicrous, and finally undeniably mad. In short, a real person. Without this complexity the film could easily have fallen into the trap of either justifying or damning Byck’s actions, leaving the audience the luxury of not having to think about motivations and consequence.
The story is far from new, though obscured from the pages of history. A decent hard working, separated man struggles to make ends meet for himself and his family without compromising his beliefs. He works as a salesman, and sees corruption and deceit all around him. Richard Nixon floats in the background, pontificating (“I want the American people to know I’m not a crook”), and is singled out by Byck’s boss as the greatest salesman of all, having been elected on a promise to get the country out of Vietnam, failed to deliver on his promise, and yet managed to convince the American public to re-elect him (one of several moments that draw uneasy parallels with the present).
An America where racism is rife, and family and consumer values rule (because a married man presents the right image to sell to customers) is presented, and is far from a pretty sight. It’s a society dominated by the Bible and Dale Carnegie’s How to win friends and influence people – one can instinctively sympathise with the foreshadowed Travis Bickle metamorphosis. And yet, Byck’s increasing alienation is always presented as an active choice, rather than something forced upon. His ex-wife (Naomi Watts), for example, works as a waitress, wearing the requisite short skirt, who puts up with being pawed by customers in order to earn a wage, partly because Byck keeps getting fired from jobs due to his principles.
The ludicrousness of Byck’s position is pointedly brought home, again and again, through his relationship with his sole friend, Bonny (Don Cheadle). Whenever Byck comes up against an obstacle, preventing him from success, he goes to Bonny for support. With the patronising line “I thought you of all people would understand” – Bonny is black – Byck moves from being a potential agent of vengeance for the little man, as he sees himself, into a ridiculous, self-important whine. Indeed, thanks to Byck’s irresponsibility Bonny ends up in jail, taking the rap for his stand against corporate America.
And yet, at the centre of the film, there remains this transgressive act that, if succesful, would have changed Byck from a failure to a success, at least in terms of infamy. That the proposed assassination bears such a resemblance to the September 11th attacks makes for uncomfortable viewing, particularly when Byck’s monologues are taken into account – “I consider myself a grain of sand on this beach called America […] If I am lucky, the action I am about to take will show the powerful that even the least grain of sand has the power to destroy them”. Were it not a true story, one could imagine lots of righteous anger being aimed at the director for creating unwanted, though not necessarily unwaranted, parallels.
Uncomfortable viewing, sure, but, thanks to skilful direction and superb acting, compelling viewing.