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Secret Honor

Secret Honor
Criterion 257
1984 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 90 min. / Street Date Oct 19, 2004 / 39.95
Starring Philip Baker Hall
Cinematography Pierre Mignot
Production Designer Stephen Altman
Film Editor Juliet Weber
Original Music George Burt
Written by Donald Freed, Arnold M. Stone from their play
Produced by Robert Altman, Scott Bushnell
Directed by Robert Altman

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Director Robert Altman was at a low career mark when he did this 16mm feature far away from the Hollywood studios that had nurtured him through the previous decade. Altman was always one to go his own way, and in 1983's Secret Honor his proclivity for commercially iffy material got a full workout. The film is a cleverly conceived film version of a one-act, one-actor play that all takes place in one room in real time. Best known for his Paul Thomas Anderson movies, Philip Baker Hall seems to inhabit the soul of Richard M. Nixon, portrayed as a frustrated, suicidal President-in-exile.

The filmed play unfolds in Nixon's office in his New Jersey home where he dictates a vindictive last will and testament into a tape recorder, pausing frequently to instruct his unseen assistant to erase huge portions of his ramblings. Drunk, furious and foolhardy, Nixon goes over his life and career in painful detail. The picture he paints is a man completely without scruples, an opportunist who sold out even before he began. Surrounded by pictures of Presidents and famous associates, he has venomous words for them all, especially Eisenhower ("He once introduced me as Nick Dixon!"). He practically foams at the mouth while cursing Henry Kissinger, a "backstabbing whoremonger" given the Nobel Peace prize while Nixon was dubbed the Mad Bomber of Cambodia.

Nixon thrashes about like a caged animal, drinking, swearing and letting loose a tirade of invectives at his invisible tormentors, but mostly at history itself. He still has nothing but awe for the cadre of political kingmakers who plucked him from nowhere to run for public office. These business interests used Nixon as a puppet, 'forcing' him to pull dirty tricks on his political opponents. From the very beginning he sees politics as a one huge crooked racket and himself as its tool, but he also insists on a parallel fantasy in which he shines as a great leader and a great American.

Philip Baker Hall's performance can't be praised highly enough. He's in control throughout, with nothing to bounce off of except himself; Nixon's fevered testimony is the kind of paranoid raving in which a single thought seldom finishes before another leaps into his mouth. He leaps from subject to subject like a madman with a completely subjective view of history. Instead of thanking his lucky stars that the Bay of Pigs fiasco happened while Kennedy was in office, he's upset that he didn't get to oversee the operation he planned for Eisenhower. "I would have bombed Castro," he rails, furious that his dire need to do something dramatic was thwarted.

All the while, he plays to the silent audience of his B&W security monitors, slipping in and out of a bitter rage. At one moment he's clutching his mother's bible with loving devotion, and the next he's pounding it and cursing yet another unjust persecution. All of his tirades lead up to an incoherent rationalization for Watergate and his exit from office; he goes straight from vague conspiracy theories to expressions of his unconquerable righteousness without ever facing up to the facts. A major loose cannon, Nixon's so far gone that the last will he is taping is more an inadvertent confession than anything that might vindicate him. It's a great play with a riveting central performance.

I don't think we'll see Secret Honor playing at the Nixon library any time soon.

Criterion's DVD of Secret Honor is a fine encoding of the 16mm show in its original flat ratio. Filmed at the University of Michigan on a shoestring and crewed in all but key roles by students, it's a beautifully shot piece that retains the graces of the original production yet never comes off as merely a filmed play.

Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten has given us good commentaries with director Altman and co-writer Donald Freed, both recorded in 1992. There's also a fine interview piece with actor Philip Baker Hall. Even better is an 82-minute collection of Nixon audio visual documents, starting with the famous Checkers Speech in which he successfully used the intimacy of television to salvage his position next to Ike on the Republican ticket. Leave it to Tricky Dick to use an end-run scheme against his own party!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Secret Honor rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: interview doc with Philip Baker Hall, audio commentary with director and writer, archive of Richard Nixon film documents.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 29, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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