Ten minutes into watching The Assassination of Richard Nixon (TAORN), it occurred to me – haven’t I seen this film before? The more I watched, the more it became apparent – I’ve definitely seen this film before: its title then was Taxi Driver.
The similarities are too apparent to be ignored: both protagonists are demented, but this is not immediately apparent; just for fun, they play about with hand guns; politicians become convenient scapegoats for rage and social ineptitude; both films culminate in bloody shoot outs. There are also comparable scenes of toe curling embarrassment: in Taxi Driver, Travis takes Betsy to see a Swedish sex education film (not exactly your ideal first date movie); in TAORN, Sam heads over to a local Black Panthers office and tries to join up, suggesting that they change the name of the organisation to ‘the Zebras’, to reflect the supposed black and white membership. You watch both scenes through your fingers.
Even the names of the protagonists are similar: Bickle and Bicke, anyone? That said, TAORN is based on a true story: in 1974, Samuel Byck did indeed attempt to hijack an airliner with the intention of flying into the White House. The alternate spelling of Byck’s name was apparently made so as not to upset living relatives (huh?), so Bicke it was. The fact that Taxi Driver was released in 1976 with Robert DeNiro in the lead role of Travis Bickle is surely not coincidental. Weirdly enough, it seems that things have come full circle: a film based on a true story looks and feels remarkably similar to a film made nearly thirty years previously that was probably based on the same true story. Of course this tells us nothing except the fact that Taxi Driver is by far and away the better film.
So why does TAORN get a showing now, and with Sean Penn in the lead role, no less?
Something I’ve been hearing a lot of recently is contemporary relevance. A friend of mine recently pitched an idea for a documentary to the Beeb, who simply said: Why now? What relevance does this idea have to the way we live today? The answer is not as difficult as you might think: even something simple like the anniversary of some significant or meaningful event is good enough. Problem was, my friend was pitching an idea about a series of events that occurred in the late-eighties with seemingly no link to the present day, no matter how hard he looked. So that was the end of that.
In TAORN, contemporary relevance seems to be contained in the idea that the real life Byck was prepared to use a jet airliner as a weapon. Shades of 911 of course, and even though TAORN is set in 1974, I guess as an idea it made the whole thing easier to pitch (the last shot of the film is Bick playing with a toy airliner). That said, with Sean Penn on board (and onscreen for the vast majority of the movie’s running time), perhaps a sense of contemporary relevance isn’t important. And besides, we’re talking fiction here. If the drama’s good enough, who cares? In TAORN’s case, it’s OK – but that doesn’t mean it’s a whole lot of fun to watch.