Though the American Dream as it once was — the idea that you can start out scrubbing toilets at the local gas station and end up the president of Texaco — might not exist anymore (if it ever did), this is still a country full of success stories. Given that — and our general opinion that failure in professional life often arises from failure of spirit — what happens to those forced to watch as their ambitions slip down the drain is seldom pretty, and often downright terrible.
Such a spiral is described in detail in “The Assassination of Richard Nixon.” Though intricately shot, with scene after scene that approaches real beauty, “Assassination” is ultimately a rather tedious attempt at a movie about the descent into madness. While the man and the true story behind “Assassination” is more than enough fodder for a solid and insightful film, the filmmakers seem so intent on getting inside their subject’s head that they only succeed in tearing out the complicated clockwork that made him go.
Sean Penn plays Samuel Bicke, a character based on possibly one of the least-known figures in the annals of presidential assassination lore (in a final indignity, writer Niels Mueller got his subject’s name wrong: it was really spelled Byck). In February 1974, Byck died during an attempt to hijack a jetliner and crash it into the White House — a scenario that has caught the attention of at least two screenwriters in our post 9/11 world (a small-screen treatment of Byck’s story is apparently in the works for USA Network).
While the real Byck had a history of threatening president Nixon and spent the years before his death struggling with mental problems, in “Assassination,” Bicke is passed off as something of a harmless dimwit.
Bicke, however, has a dream. With a friend, Bonny Simmons (Don Cheadle), Bicke hopes to fix up a dilapidated school bus and turn it into a tire shop on wheels, driving to help those with flats instead of the other way around. In the eight weeks he is waiting to hear a response to his application for a government-issued small business loan, however, things go from bad to worse for him. Finally, with the country still mired in Vietnam and a recently re-elected Richard Nixon looking strong in the days before Watergate, Bicke becomes fixated on racism and power, with Nixon the ultimate poster boy for both. By the time his wife’s divorce petition and the rejection notice for his small business loan come rolling in almost back-to-back, he’s a man walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon.
With the camera spending most of its time pointed in Sean Penn’s evocative face, the success or failure of “Assassination” rides mainly on his shoulders. Sadly, Penn seems more interested in making his character a near-retarded victim than what Byck really was: a socially awkward Average Joe who had a break with reality — one that made him turn the everyday insults of life into a monumental conspiracy bent on robbing him of his dignity, with Nixon playing the part of Chief Demon. While one could debate Penn’s motives in choosing to play Bicke that way, the film suffers for it, and what could have come off as a real-life “Taxi Driver” instead becomes “Rain Man” with skyjacking and gunplay. In the end, “Assassination” proves that even the great ones don’t hit a home run every time they come to the plate.
I love a bio-pic, and I’m especially fond of big-screen forays into the lives of musicians. I loved “Ray,” for instance. Ditto on “The Doors,” “Amadeus” and “Sweet and Lowdown.”
Nonetheless, I must admit that I rolled my eyes a bit when I heard about “Beyond the Sea,” the new movie treatment of the life and times of Bobby Darin. Pictures about people’s lives are supposed to be about interesting, intriguing or downright incendiary people, right? Darin sang the hell out of “Mack the Knife,” but what else?
The sad thing is, even after sitting through his life story, I still kind of feel that way. Fans of Darin in particular and ’60s cool in general (not to mention devotees of the always brilliant Kevin Spacey) will probably find much to love here. For the casual viewer, however, “Beyond the Sea” most likely will splash down a few leagues short of the shore.
Here, Spacey plays Darin. Stricken with heart trouble that kept him bedridden throughout his childhood, Darin was taught music by his mother as a way of keeping him occupied. An admirer of Sinatra, Darin used that education as his ticket out of the tenements, eventually headlining Golden Age Vegas, wedding sweet-as-sugar movie princess Sandra Dee (Kate Bosworth), and landing an Academy Award nomination. Waning popularity, continuing heart trouble, and a years-long hiatus in the mid-’60s sent his career spiraling, however, ending with his efforts at becoming a folk rock singer before a return to the standards just before his death in 1973.
Don’t get me wrong: This is a serviceable little movie. As in “Chicago,” elaborately choreographed singing/dancing numbers are worked around the major events of Darin’s life, with Spacey providing the vocals himself (though Spacey does a fair job with these, his nasally imitation is about two clicks below the real-life Darin’s velvety purr on hits like “Beyond the Sea”). The idea of having a young Darin walk the old Darin through his life is daring as well. It is obvious that Spacey is enthralled with his subject, and there are some interesting bits here and there.
The problem with “Beyond the Sea,” however, is too much siding and not enough house. While Bobby Darin was a great singer, that doesn’t mean he was interesting or important enough to merit a Big Screen Life Story, and it shows in the movie’s thin spots. Someone might as well have made a sweeping biography of Col. Sanders. Everything you need to know about the good Colonel, you can find in a bucket of his chicken. By the same token, the simple fact of the matter is that everything you need to know about Bobby Darin can be found on a CD of his greatest hits.