Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Donald Freed & Arnold M. Stone
As the recent Broadway production, and upcoming film adaptation, of Frost/Nixon ought to demonstrate, America's thirty-seventh president, who resigned in disgrace over three decades ago, is still a source of fascination for artists and audiences alike. It shouldn't be surprising, as Nixon's presidency and subsequent ruination has had far-reaching effects on American politics and society that continue to reverberate to this day. At the center of it, he himself is a difficult character to parse, as he's not easily reducible to simple motivations—except perhaps paramount paranoia. Several films in the past decade or so have focused directly on Nixon, from Oliver Stone's epic biopic simply called Nixon to the slight and forgotten farce crudely entitled Dick. (A quick IMDb search reveals many other titles: 1995's Kissinger and Nixon, 1997's Elvis Meets Nixon, and films like The Assassination of Richard Nixon in which Nixon is not the explicit subject; more than any other modern American President, Richard Nixon as man and legend enduringly refuses to stop popping up in pop culture—look for instance, for one of many minor examples, at his frequent appearance as a disembodied head on Futurama.) But in the years following the Watergate scandal and Ford's infamous pardon, talking about Nixon or making movies about him wasn't a popular pastime in the States, excepting 1976's All the President's Men, and it wasn't likely to win one any praise; he and everything he represented was something Americans just wanted to forget, or at least ignore, according to Philip Baker Hall (best known, unfortunately, to non-Paul Thomas Anderson fans as Seinfeld's Mr. Bookman) in an interview on the DVD's special features. So the 1983 stage production of Secret Honor, made into a film by Robert Altman at the University of Michigan, where he was at the time a visiting professor, was a risky anomaly, especially as it isn't particularly venomous in its treatment of the despised former president. As Michael Wilmington writes of the film, "Nixon emerges as not quite the comic villain of liberal imagination and not quite the conservative’s tragic hero but as an odd mixture of both." That's because Secret Honor is not merely a caustic rebuke of the Nixon years; it reserves its most vehement judgments for forces even larger than Nixon, whom the film ultimately reduces to a pawn.
Altman was on a streak of stage adaptations during the '80s, and Secret Honor is one of the standouts, though it has mostly faded into obscurity along with the rest of them, despite a Criterion release; I only even heard of it by pure chance. To say the least, it's unfortunate that the film doesn't retain a greater reputation, as Philip Baker Hall's portrayal of Nixon is nothing short of stupendous; without exacerbation I would say it's one of the finest screen performances ever recorded. He delivers an uninterruptible stream of energetic ferocity, portraying Nixon as a rambling manic who can never finish a thought, constantly wandering off into tangents and digressions; if Hall wasn't so assured and commanding, it would approach the caricatural.
Secret Honor posits a curious conspiracy at its climax, and as such comes with several disclaimers at its start, cautiously declaring, in as many different ways as possible, that this is a work of fiction. "An attempt to understand." Or, "A political myth," as its subtitle reads. Nixon is first introduced in the film as seen on a series of blue monitors, attached to closed circuit cameras, suggesting an apologia complementary to the opening disclaimers, that the Nixon we are about to see is an "image" and should be understood in that respect; it also speaks to Nixon's rampant paranoia—and narcissism, as he often has all four TVs set to himself—that he would even have so many cameras set-up outside of his study. Secret Honor gets off to an intentionally slow and unimpassioned start, as Nixon enters his study—the only setting for this wisely unopened theatrical adaptation—changes into a sweater, fixes himself a drink, tests his tape recorder, and sets down a loaded pistol in a prominent position on his desk. Nixon is casual, soon to be drunk, and ready to die.
At first, Nixon is inarticulate as he addresses quotidian matters, such as a gift for the gardener's sick wife, because he's got other things on his mind, namely himself; as soon as Hall gets going, he really gets going, never at a loss for words, only guilty perhaps of a spitting and hurried stammer, when it comes to discussing Nixon, and he brilliantly captures the spirit of a truly insane man grasping at a final attempt to tell his story; there's an urgency in this tape and video recorded confessional, as though this will be Nixon's last chance to set the record straight. Perhaps that gun is meant to stop anyone who might attempt to interfere. He speaks alternately in the first person and in the third, taking the persona of a defense lawyer, addressing the tape as, "Your Honor"—Nixon, you'll recall, was a licensed attorney before his political career and his subsequent disbarment following it. In moments of clarity few and far between, he offers instructions to "Roberto", the Diane to his Agent Cooper, about how to edit the tapes, suggesting he plans them as a posthumous revelation; or, a suicide note, but he acts at most times as though this will simply be the trial he never got, thanks to Ford's pardon, regarding which Nixon comes across as resentful. It's as though Nixon secretly suffered from an undiagnosed Tourette's Syndrome, as Hall makes him prone to uncontrollable vulgar outbursts on any of the myriad of subjects he tackles in this questionless self-interview. (There's also some historical basis for this, as the Nixon that emerges from the Watergate Tapes is not known for his delicate language.) He curses the Kennedys for stealing the 1960 election (and vaguely hints at a conspiracy in Dallas), rails against Eisenhower, and says of the Founding Fathers, "[they] were nothing more than a bunch of snotty English shits!" This animus for the Founding Fucking Fathers (!) plays into Altman and Hall's portrayal of Nixon's self-pitying self-characterization as an ordinary American, and a real man, that fell victim of the Eastern Establishment—"those Eastern pricks!"—and a tool of the overarching conspiracy he calls "The Committee of 100", who overlap with the shady Bohemian Grove collective.
Hall's Nixon saves his most direct and coherent vitriol for Henry Kissinger, whose painted portrait absurdly adorns the wall along with Lincoln's, Washington's, Eisenhower's and Woodrow Wilson's. "Dr. Shit-Ass," he calls him, hilariously, "ass-licking Kraut son of a bitch!" Hall paints Nixon a suspicious, paranoid, self-destructive, inferiority-complex ridden mess of a man, a smartly pitiable characterization rather than a sympathetic one, and he runs the emotional gamut with pitch perfectness, from madness and fury to rueful, mournful melancholy; he alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-pity, as when he shouts, "I coulda beaten Kennedy!" only to follow it a few minutes later with, "nobody coulda beaten Kennedy!" His rants jump around, as does Hall physically, from topic to topic, ripping through his personal history, with commentary, in a seemingly particular order that just doesn't work out; it's easy for the viewer to get lost amidst all of the naturalistic name-dropping and obscure historical references (the Wright Patman Committee?), but Hall's electricity keeps the viewer glued and provides most of the necessary information; dialogue, in fact, seems almost unnecessary, except to give Hall something to say as he tears through the set. This isn't Shakespeare, and the film's beauty is not to be found in the language itself.
Altman uses the above-mentioned portraits and other office miscellany as convenient cutaways, to break the monotony of the single set, but for such purposes he mostly he uses the aforementioned blue monitors, which increasingly take on significance and symbolic value, whether as a judgmental eye, the only interlocutor for a pitiably lonely man or, finally, a sort of moderntimes mirror, emphasizing Nixon's duality and suggesting that the only way the public can try, frustratingly, to come to know Nixon is through misleadingly mediated images. Altman also jazzes up the inherent theatricality of the proceedings with a snaky, prowling camera, but at times his style is too overpoweringly flashy, detracting from the focus of the film which isn't the script but the raging man at its center, Philip Baker Hall.
Nixon ends his ninety minute rant by offering up a sinister tale of Asian drug money, constitutional assault, the "true" nature of Watergate and, of course, a glowing portrait of himself. "I got out to protect the Presidency," he claims wildly, weepily adding, "I really did want to grow up to be Abraham Lincoln." Sure you did, Richie, sure you did. Secret Honor is a provocative exploration of Nixon the man and Nixon the historical figure, ultimately becoming a fierce admonishment of the thoroughly corrupted and irredeemable American political system of which Nixon is only the face, nearly a red herring; it provides a unique spin on Watergate, a fascinating alternate history (or "countermyth", in Stonespeak) that may or may not be the product of a madman's persecution complex, and a devastating portrayal of an endlessly fascinating human being. "The prisoner in the docks is guilty of one crime only," Nixon says of himself, "and that's being Richard Milhous Nixon." That may be true, but only because being Nixon comes with a hell of a lot of baggage.