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Overkill With Sean Penn

'Assassination of Richard Nixon' Misses the Killer's Real Crime

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2005; Page C07

"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" isn't about the assassination of Richard Nixon, of course, because Nixon wasn't assassinated. It's about the assassination of George Neal Ramsburg, who was assassinated, to the pain and eternal grief of parents who knew and loved him, friends who adored him, colleagues who respected him.

But the one name you won't find in "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" is Ramsburg's because nobody affiliated with the movie -- big star Sean Penn, co-writer-director Niels Mueller, fabulous movie babe Naomi Watts, Oscar contender Don Cheadle -- apparently gives a damn about him.

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Ramsburg, then 24, was the Maryland Aviation Administration Police Department officer on duty in Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Feb. 22, 1974. He was looking the wrong way when a mentally ill loser named Sam Byck walked up behind him and shot him dead. Then Byck, animated by delusional fantasies of his own importance to the world, vaulted over the body and proceeded into a loading jet, waving his gun and presumably spraying saliva. He locked the door, commandeered the cockpit and ordered the pilots to take off. When they wouldn't -- the wheel blocks were still on, thus immobilizing the aircraft -- he shot them too, killing one. Then he sort of ran around shrieking at stewardesses until a fast-thinking Anne Arundel police officer helped bring the tragically screwed-up business to an end.

"The Assassination of Richard Nixon" tells Byck's story and no one else's over its remorseless and claustrophobic 95 minutes. It invites us into the airless hellhole that is the Byck brain, even if the movie tries some primitive presumed lawsuit-avoidance maneuverings by spelling the main character's name "Bicke."

The movie really misses something by ignoring poor Officer Ramsburg, and also the other cop who intervened. I could see how that movie would work: It could cross-cut dynamically between the mentally ill man and the two officers. It would contrast his insanity and vainglory with their pure commitment to duty. It would put Byck's actions against a context of society; we would see the pain that he caused, the pain of others, not just his own. It would be about us, not him.

By choosing to ignore them, Mueller and Big Star Penn create what amounts to a vanity production. It's the all-Sean cable network, 24/7. As great an actor as Penn is, he grows wearisome in this endless up-close-and-personal ordeal, his eyes radiating dark hurt and confusion as the disappointments mount and his circumstances decline. It's like being in Bicke's T-shirt with him.

The movie doesn't quite play fair. It loves the part of the real Sam Byck, who pinned the blame for all his catastrophes on Richard Nixon, who was then undergoing crucifixion by Watergate. (Byck's plan, self-indulgently code-named "Operation Pandora's Box": Get the plane airborne and crash it into the White House, passengers and all.) That's the movie's Sam Bicke, and if it stops well short of endorsing its antihero's rage at Nixon, it still finds that idea titillating.

However, it ignores other realities of Byck, such as the fact that, far from a lean, ruggedly handsome movie star, he was an ugly fat guy in bad clothes who didn't have the courage to hold himself responsible for his failures. The movie also passes on -- I'd love to see Penn in this scene! -- the Sam Byck who demonstrated at the White House in a dirty Santa Claus suit under a placard that read, "All I want for Christmas are my Constitutional Liberties."

His definition of "constitutional liberties," of course, was a loan from the Small Business Administration for a retail tire outlet in a refurbished school bus. But those shrewd bureaucrats, far from being villainous, did their duty and understood that there was no reason to believe that Byck, who had been unable to hold any job, even with his relatives, was capable of running a business. Byck -- Bicke, Byckxe, Bichs, Bicch, whatever! -- took it personally and went off into his peculiar cuckoo land.

Divorced, abandoned, exiled in the midst of a society where everybody except him seemed to be getting theirs, he got loonier and loonier. The film does show his odd habit of mailing rambling, self-justifying tapes to such baffled luminaries as Leonard Bernstein and then-Sen. Abe Ribicoff. It shows how his inability to get along with anyone cost him job after job. It has fun with salesman's culture by depicting him in one failed enterprise in which a blowhard office furniture store owner (Jack Thompson) continually tries to boost him by all the corny salesman's tricks -- self-help books, exhortations, needling humor -- in hopes of getting his hopeless sad sack to perform. Bicke's response, of course, is to wilt under the pressure, and convince himself that he's too darned moral to succeed as a salesman.

The family stuff is the most unbearable, as his clammy need for approval drives his wife (Watts) and finally the children away. The movie gives him, I think, too much credit for loving his kids (the real Byck had four) because, after all, so what? Ma Barker loved her kids, too. And it makes us feel the pain that turned him rancid when his wife divorced him. Imagine the gall of the woman! She expected him to earn a living!

In the end, "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" feels more like "The Assassination of Joe, the Average Viewer." It grinds on and on without mercy. You're in the cross hairs. There is no escape. Where is that Secret Service when you need it?

The Assassination of Richard Nixon (95 minutes at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for profanity and a scene of graphic violence.


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