“A man is only remembered for his work.”
-Samuel Bicke (Sean Penn)
This is probably best read with the background accompaniment of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.
I've just re-watched The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Neils Mueller's stunning film set in 1974. Samuel Bicke, a struggling salesman, blames Nixon for the world's ills, including unemployment, racism and corruption and decides to take drastic action. I decided to come back to this film because there was so much about the Bicke character (played flawlessly by the amazing Sean Penn) that I empathised with.
For the record, I am in no way interested in killing myself or anyone else. I just wanted to lay that straight out. But bear with me here.
Bicke is a smart man. He's intelligent, eloquent and politically-minded- he disapproves of the government in charge. Maybe I'm blowing my own trumpet, but I see myself in all of that. What really correlates, however, is that Bicke is seen attending many sales interviews and only getting the one job.
Back in 2005 when I finished my media degree, I knew that there would be no jobs whatsoever in TV or Radio- and I was right. I went to recruitment fairs, read newspaper ads, checked job websites, visited the job centre- the only positions available for people with no useful qualifications were in sales. So I applied for these jobs. And just like Bicke, I bluffed my way into sales positions and failed miserably. I wasn't prepared to lie to make money. I stumbled on my words when I tried to sell to customers. There is even a scene in which Bicke discusses previous failed employment with a prospective manager. “They expected me to lie,” he says. That kind of awkward transparency is something I've experienced- and I hope I won't ever again. In short, I was too honest. Penn's stuttering, delicate portrayal of Bicke has all of these traits. Watching this film is like looking back in time.
Bicke is a rookie office furniture salesman. I once worked as a newspaper advertising salesman, and the two businesses were strikingly similar. The furniture store was run by a father and son, Jack and Martin Jones (Jack Thompson and Martin Henke). The newspaper was run by a woman; her daughter was part of the sales team. I was surrounded by people who were more confident and successful than me, but I knew that they were no smarter. I couldn't grasp why they could achieve sales results and I couldn't. Bicke was in a similar boat. I was advised by a sales trainer to read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Jack Jones lends Bicke a copy of this book. Jones then tells him to listen better, a criticism I received when I was in sales.
Outside of work, however, Bicke lies to girls for their attention, despite refusing to do this for an employer. I've been guilty on both counts of this. He also apologises way too much, both in work and out, something that I eventually learned to keep to a minimum. He generally makes all the big mistakes when it comes to women- self doubt, overt niceness, awkwardness. He lies to his estranged wife, played by Naomi Watts, who even looks like a girl I dated in 2006. The wife is polite but thoroughly bored of him and is waiting for him to lose interest and leave her alone. She's also latched on to the fact that he's in trouble (“You're going to lose this job, aren't you?...”). In 2008 I dated a girl who could sense that I hated my job and that I might not be there much longer. Our conversations became difficult and eventually she was just waiting for me to ditch her. The nice-but-bored tone in Watts' voice was just like the tone of my ex in 2008. Bicke's wife divorces him. He finds out when the “Dissolution of Marriage” letter drops on his doormat. My 2008-ex ditched me by text. Bicke is devastated. Fuck it, so was I.
Bicke's hands, like mine, tremble when he's under pressure.
Noticing that things aren't going his way at the furniture store, Bicke decides to set up his own business. He submits his business application to the authorities, who tell him it will take a number of weeks before he hears back. He then returns to the authorities within a matter of days in the hope of 'speeding up' his application. The receptionist tells him the same thing- wait for us to call. The newspaper job that I had was telesales- selling advertising space over the phone. I dealt with hundreds of secretaries numerous times, who each repeatedly told me “we're not interested. Don't call back.” So I'd call back. Just like my manager was telling me to. Bicke deals with the same tired disdain that I did. On one occasion, the manager took the receptionist's phone off her and shouted, “WE ARE NOT INTERESTED. GOODBYE.”
Likewise, Bicke eventually speaks to a boss at the council who tells him the same thing as the secretary did but in a deeper voice.
Bicke eventually resigns. I got the push after four weeks. They were paying me a basic wage- it was better than being on the dole- so I saw no reason not to string it out as long as I could. Not long after this Bicke loses his mind. Well... if you read this blog regularly, you can draw your own comparisons.
The film ends with Bicke attempting to hijack a passenger plane with the intention of taking out President Nixon, who he sees as the instigator of the world's ills. As mentioned, I'm not going to take things that far. I am disappointed in the Labour government for a number of reasons- the spiralling crime rate, the lack of rights for teachers, the dumbing down of education and the increase of high grades, tax rises, the lax immigration rules that do not correlate with the UK's lack of jobs- the list goes on. But I'm not going to do things Bicke's way. I'm just going to sit here and write about Labour until they are ousted- which shouldn't be too long. Then I'll bitch about whoever else is in power. Unless it's me in power, which... hey, you never know.
I did actually write a screenplay about an unemployed graduate who is unwittingly inducted into a terrorist faction, and who is so furious about how his university and the government had let him down that he starts to empathise with his terrorist associates. I'm still polishing it off, so stay tuned. But writing is as far as I'll go in terms of political activism.
The most interesting thing about Bicke's intentions was that, on the 11th September 2001, a group of people tried to fly a jet into the White House. I now realise that the attacks on 9/11, although horrific, were not that unheard of. People had been thinking up these kinds of atrocities for decades.
On the way to the airport, Bicke is listening to some motivational tapes that his boss had given to him.
“Remember: power is a state of mind,” the tape says. “You have as much as you think you have. If you don't think you have any, you don't.”
When the film first came out, I found some advertising postcards, probably in the lobby of a cinema somewhere. The title of the film was tiny, written in the corner, but the arresting thing was the giant phrase in red block caps.
IS A STATE
There was something about the phrase that I liked. It made sense. I blu-tacked it to the front of my diary so I would see it every day. Every September I buy a new diary and I transfer across the now dog-eared, battered postcard. When I opened a Blogger account for people to see my best work, I couldn't think of a better name for the blog itself.
Throughout the film, Penn portrays the helpless Bicke as being close to tears until the closing scenes when his character becomes psychotic. Mueller uses a variation of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to heighten the pathos, and it works so well that from that moment on, you will only ever think of this film whenever you hear either the film's composition or the traditional melody.
My only hope now is that I haven't given away too much of the film for you. If you haven't seen it yet, I recommend you do.