Sean Penn about to board his flight in The Assassination of Richard Nixon

This is the fourth post in an occasional series by John Seal on movies made in Berkeley. The other movies reviewed in the series are: Changes”; “Harold and Maude”; and “Tear Gas and Law Enforcement”.

Berkeley has a well-earned reputation as a hotbed of political activism. Actor Sean Penn has a well-earned reputation as a hotheaded political activist. What happens when Penn’s work brings him to our sleepy little college town? Why, The Assassination of Richard Nixon of course.

Penn plays Sam Bicke, a salesman with both an overwhelming inferiority complex and an inflated sense of his own innate goodness. Loath to take advantage of customers (“the one with the biggest profit margin is the biggest liar”, he says) and rigid in adherence to his own strict moral code, Sam has trouble holding a job, even balking at the prospect of shaving off his moustache in order to keep his current furniture-selling gig.

Separated from wife Marie (Naomi Watts) and estranged from brother (and previous employer) Julius (Michael Wincott), Sam desperately wants to start his own business — a mobile tire store in a renovated school bus — with friend and auto shop owner Bonny (Don Cheadle). His dream is thwarted by the Small Business Administration, which rejects his loan application via a terse form letter — because, Sam believes, his partner is black.

When Sam is fired by hail-fellow-well-met boss Jack Jones (Australian actor Jack Thompson, in an outstanding performance) for failing to toe the company line, he hatches a cockamamie plot — inspired by the (true) story of an Army private who stole a helicopter and landed it on the White House lawn in early 1974 — to hijack a plane and kill the man he blames for society’s (and his own) problems: Tricky Dicky.

Nixon is a ubiquitous figure throughout the film, a constant presence in the background television noise of everyday life, and Jones describes him early on as the ultimate salesman: a guy who ran successfully not once, but twice, selling the same product — ending the war in Vietnam.

Sam Bicke is the most effective cinematic representation of white working-class discontent since Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Alternately describing himself as a grain of sand capable of destroying the ruling classes and a powerless “little guy” being punished for unspecified sins, Sam claims “slavery never really ended in this country. They just gave it another name — employee”.

In the film’s most richly symbolic and darkly humorous scene, this white slave pays a visit to the local Black Panther Party office to make a donation and pitch his idea for the ‘Zebras’, an integrated version of the Panthers. Sam tells Panther organizer Harold (Mykelti Williamson) “I’m in the same boat”, to which Harold retorts “you OWN the boat.”

Though the film is set somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard, The Assassination of Richard Nixon was partly shot in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Oakland (‘Mayor’ Jerry Brown gets a personal ‘thank you’ in the credits) — presumably as a convenience for star Penn, who lived in Marin County at the time. You’ll be hard-pressed to spy any familiar landmarks, however, as the film sticks carefully to nondescript interiors and working-class neighborhoods that could be anywhere.

Released to little acclaim and paltry box-office receipts during cinema’s graveyard shift — the first week of 2005 — The Assassination of Richard Nixon feels, physically and politically, like a very Berkeley movie. Though bereft of money shots of the Campanile or Sproul Hall, many Berkeleyside readers will appreciate the film’s willingness to engage serious political issues — even if its hero seems like the kind of gadfly who spends too much time at City Council meetings. Then again, what could be more Berkeley than that?

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...