June 1, 2005
Before Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) gave us one of the more definitive examinations of controversial American President, Richard M. Nixon, Robert Altman made a little seen cinematic take of his own, entitled Secret Honor (1984). After burning his bridges with most of the major Hollywood studios by the end of the ‘70s, Altman spent much of the ‘80s adapting plays for the big screen. One such project was Secret Honor, adapted from a one-man play starring Philip Baker Hall (who reprised the role for the movie) and features the beleaguered President sequestered in his private study dictating his memoirs as he talks bitterly about his checkered past in politics.
The first image of Nixon is fuzzy and out of focus as seen through a security monitor. It is an apt visual metaphor for the man. He was never seen with any kind of clarity, always an out of focus personality. Right away it is established that Nixon many not be the sharpest tool in the shed as he tries, in vain, to figure out how to work a tape recorder. It is this long, drawn out lesson in futility that harkens back to the first ten minutes of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) where Marlowe (Elliot Gould) tries (also in vain) to feed his cat.
The film’s origins do betray it to a certain degree as there is something of a theatrical quality but Altman does try to keep things visually interesting without distracting the audience from Philip Baker Hall’s powerful performance. The veteran actor doesn’t look much like Nixon (but then again neither did Anthony Hopkins) but that really isn’t the point. Hall captures the spirit of the man and especially his troubled quality that made him such a fascinating figure.
Over the course of the evening as Nixon confesses/defends his sins. He rambles incoherently—sometimes to comic effect. For example, when he talks about the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Ruby he says, “Look, I’m not saying two rights make a wrong.” There are also poignant moments like when he reminiscences about his childhood. “When I was a child, the sweetest sound I ever heard was the sound of the Santa Fe railway.”
Ultimately, Hall portrays Nixon as a haunted figure who saw himself as a victim of history. Nixon’s brother died at a young age of tuberculosis, he lost the 1960 Presidential election to Kennedy and Watergate, the “third-rate burglary,” resulted in his downfall. He made all kinds of broken promises to his wife, Pat, that he would never run again for President and yet he did anyway.
Philip Baker Hall delivers an impressive performance—especially when one considers that he has no one else to work off of. It is just him and the camera. He also has to cover so many aspects of Nixon’s life and convey his past through dialogue, without resorting to visual flashbacks. It is all expositional dialogue and he pulls it off, conveying a complex range of emotions.
Criterion has ported over the two audio commentaries from the film’s laser disc edition. Robert Altman is on the first track and he describes the contents of the movie as “truthful but not factual.” He talks at length about the genesis of the film version and how it was shot in only seven days with a crew of grad students at the University of Michigan. This is a thoughtful track with anecdotes and good observations.
Co-writer Donald Freed is on the second track and he says that the play/film was an attempt on Nixon’s part to explain, to himself, what had happened to his political career. On an interesting note, Freed imagines that Nixon repeated this process every night only with different stories each time. The playwright also gives a brief background to the play’s history and offers an excellent analysis of its themes and meanings.
“Philip Baker Hall” is a 22-minute interview conducted with the actor specifically for this DVD. He talks about the tough time he had as a struggling actor in L.A. in the ‘70s and how he got involved with Secret Honor, both the play and the movie. He also talks about his performance and his own take on Nixon. Mixed in with the interview is vintage Super 8mm behind-the-scenes footage.
“President Richard M. Nixon” is a highlight reel of the actual man, including the infamous “Checkers Speech,” his response to the subpoena of Watergate tapes and his resignation address to the nation amongst other significant footage. This is a decent spectrum of Nixon’s political career that provides some context into what is covered in the actual film.
Secret Honor is a fascinating portrait of how politics drove Nixon crazy, reducing him to an embittered shell of his former self. He was chewed up and spit out by the political system that he thought he could control. This film posits the theory that the former President saw himself as a tragic character of Shakespearean proportions. It gives his story and his struggle that added thematic weight. Secret Honor is not a film that one would watch repeatedly but it is an interesting minor work in Altman’s illustrious career that has finally been given the deluxe treatment by the folks at Criterion.