The answer, to many, was obvious: Richard M. Nixon. From his early days as part of the Eisenhower administration, to the famous Alger Hiss case and the questionable 1960s election, Nixon was always seen as a subjugated agitator. He was a man under the thumb of some unseen ruling junta that put on the face of flummoxed rube better than he did that of a powerful leader. All during his career, it was always someone else's fault – the media, the process, the powers that be - for why trouble seemed to trail him. When he eventually resigned from office in disgrace, he slithered off into the history books, destined to be the President best remembered for his inability to accept the truth or claim any amount of responsibility. Thus, a classic tragic figure was born, a myth made from a lifetime of poisoned public service. And as an icon for a national disillusionment, he became the fodder for speculation and recrimination. In 1983, playwrights Donald Freed and Arnold Stone were determined to get to the heart of the Nixon darkness. They did so by extrapolating out from his life, both public and private, to get inside his head. The result was a magnificent, manic one-man show entitled Secret Honor. Auteur Robert Altman adopted the work, taking star Phillip Baker Hall around the country to polish the material. He then filmed the play for posterity.
The result is this stunning, special motion picture version made by the dynamic director in 1984. New to DVD thanks to those experts in lost gem retrieval, Criterion, we can now witness one of the greatest performances in the history of acting. And, surprisingly, see how accurate Freed and Stone's 'dramatization' of the entire Nixon legacy really was.
Richard M. Nixon is a figure in American history that always elicits responses in the extreme. Someone like Hunter S. Thompson will consider him the most dangerous political leader in the last century. Apologists and pundits will line up to try and reclaim some of his distinction by making the claim that he was an effective expert in foreign policy. Until Bill Clinton and his blowjobs came along to smear their spunk all over the White House's honor, Nixon held the distinction of being the first President disgraced out of office. No charges were ever brought (unlike slick Willy) and no impeachment was ever attempted. But Nixon's crimes, as big, broad or baseless as they were, are always seen as something shaking the very foundation of the democracy. Clinton's misdeeds were all based in the human need for sin and sex, so they were easily dismissed and/or simpler to prosecute. But what transpired in the Oval Office between 1969 and 1974 is tied into so many other, grander issues – the civil rights movement, the youth coup, the escalation of the war in Vietnam – that it seemed like everything wrong with the country could be cemented to a series of mudslinging campaign strategies. When the Washington Post broke the story, confirming in inferences the circumstances at play between the President and all of his men, the tide suddenly shifted. The promise of the 60s was officially destroyed and the cynical, stained aura of bullshit business as usual swept over the nation. Unlike any other incident in the nation's history, save the terrorist attacks of September 11th, has a single event so completely coldcocked a country. Yet Watergate and its subsequent shock waves have altered the political landscape in America irreparably.
And, of course, at the center of it all was Richard M. Nixon. In his lifetime, few attempts were made to dissect his devious, deranged personality. Oliver Stone waited a year after his death (in 1994) before springing his amazing, muddled mediation on the man. 1989 saw the TV movie version of Woodward and Bernstein's follow-up to the powerful and influential All the President's Men (itself a stellar film), a showcase of the last few weeks of the Nixon Presidency called The Final Days. But when Donald Freed and Arnold Stone began their fictional formation as an attempt to understand the man, the resignation was only 9 years in the past and the wound inflicted upon the country was deep and still smarting. If it is anything, Secret Honor is an attempt to place rationale and concrete psychological factors into a seemingly insane situation – and human being. Nixon had agreed to a series of interviews with British journalist David Frost in 1977. And Nixon himself published an elephantine memoir of his life and time in 1978. But both enterprises lacked depth, and kept a nation hungry for the truth at arms length from some sort of closure. For Freed and Stone, the work would do something that no other fact-based or fictional element on Nixon ever did. It would try to clarify him. It would use a simple, one-man show format to allow the elusive enigma to speak for himself. Using material released at the time of Watergate, information ingested since, and a keen ability to observe human behavior, the resulting 90 minutes of stream of consciousness as confessional began to take shape. It encompassed everything Freed and Stone felt about the man, from his tendency toward playing the victim to his cutthroat ability to get down and dirty with the best of them.
Containing, perhaps, one of the most amazing performances ever captured on film, Robert Altman's Secret Honor is a spellbinding and special kind of film. The monologue is one of the more difficult acting skills to master, especially since everything inherent in drama – the words, the rhythms and the rising/falling story arces – is completely within the power of a single human being. A minor (or major) failure along the way and you've stopped the narrative dead in its dynamic. Those who excel at the craft – the late great Spaulding Gray, the punk turned pundit Henry Rollins – understand the pitfalls and problems that can occur. It is one of the reasons why Shakespeare is considered such a tough thespian nut to crack. The Bard filled his works with dozens of difficult solos, turning his overwrought tragedies operatic in the process. Indeed, much of Secret Honor plays like an extended aria, an attempt by one man – through one actor – to express his entire emotional and psychological being in one extended tirade. Through the highs and the lows, the truths and the fabrications, this Nixon is in desperate need to get things off his chest, to clear his conscious once and for all. But he is also a man stifled by myth, someone who understands that with every word he is speaking, ever secret he is divulging, he is destroying the legacy of his life. This is a battle between the two Presidents: the impervious in-power persona of the 1940s – 70s and the battle-scarred scapegoat trapped along the fences for all the future days. Part of Freed and Stone's brilliance is that they never let the character come down on one side or the other. This is a Nixon in personal and political plummet and only he can determine his course correction.
It goes without saying that actor Phillip Baker Hall (best known for his work in Hard Eight, Boogie Nights and Magnolia) gives one of the great screen portrayals of all time, not so much imitating Nixon as finding the flawed, fleshy fiend inside the well-known public caricature. Hall looks nothing like the famous face – similar in circumstance to Stone's thespian of choice, Anthony Hopkins – nor does he try any manner of imitation. In many ways, his interpretation is of the real Nixon, the demonic denizen, fully formed, springing from the psychotic skull of the awkward, angry man. Hall lets us see through the well-known imagery – the ski slope nose, the jowl-laden face – to witness the ephemeral Nixon inside the icon. Like getting a seat front and center inside one man's mind, we see and hear the image he projects of and for himself, the limits of his understanding and the boundaries of his delusion. And as much as his name in on the marquee, director Altman does not really impose himself here. Certainly there are a few technical and artistic flourishes (using the video screens to harken back to events from Nixon's past, the fluid tracking shots that cement the feeling of isolation and insularity) as well as a beautiful control of the narrative, but this is all Hall's show. Altman is just there to capture it all on camera. This is not to say that Secret Honor is not a wholly cinematic work, but there is a greater concern here with the passion of performance than an amazement in angle selection. While it may be easy to envision another individual behind the camera, it is impossible to see someone else before it.
As a story, Secret Honor plays directly into the late 70s, early 80s mindset that there was more to Watergate than merely a bungled robbery and a half-assed cover-up. Indeed, it seems that authors Freed and Stone are trying with Nixon's folly what Oliver Stone did in JFK - suggest a conspiracy of overwhelming global proportions. By bringing in the Council of 100, an uber-elite collective of men intensely perverted by power (the stories Nixon spews throughout Secret Honor make them sound hardly like cherubic boy scouts) into the mix, Freed and Stone find the perfect villain, a group of evil CEOs with more than their money to burn. Whenever he is looking for a reason behind the less than ethical events that transpired throughout his career, Secret Honor's ex-President turns to these nameless, faceless fiends to channel his guilt. Their manipulative menace is used as excuses for events as diverse as the death of Kennedy to the bombing raids on Cambodia. Freed and Stone may have some factual basis for their guesses (old Oliver seems to share some of their ideas) but there is a literary reason behind this device. The Council helps them to humanize Nixon, making him less of a devil and more of a pawn in a pathetic attempt at keeping the counter-culture under control. The Council is seen as an entitled entity, believing they know better than anyone, including the leader of the free world, what is best for the people. Of course, what the rulers are really arguing for is the continuation of their own base of authority. The 60s suggested that public revolt could work. The Council found Nixon early on, and now wanted him to stop the uprising – by any means necessary, including personal sacrifice.
It all helps to explain why Secret Honor is so powerful and why the main incident involved here - Watergate - still resonates. In 1983, the sense of national betrayal was still palatable. People still believed that the government was crawling with corruptions just waiting to be uncovered. And they may have been right. Yet after Iran-Contra, Whitewater, Monicagate and Halliburton, this bungled break-in at a fancy DC hotel still holds a powerful place in the public mindset. Secret Honor is so successful because it taps directly into that dissent, giving it heft and gravitas, providing more than enough reasons for keeping it potent and pliable. Impact is the key for Watergate's lasting influence. It shook the nation in a way that other awful events - JFK's death, the attempt on Reagan - never did. Perhaps the best example of this emotion and its aftermath is September 11th. Before that dark day, American felt safe. Reagan had told us – and sold us – that it was 'morning' again. Clinton then lead us through the frat boy inspired 90s, when it seemed like everything anyone touched turned to tech flavored gold. But when terrorists took down New York's Twin Towers, eradicating their existence in a single show of fallibility, America went numb. Watergate was exactly the same. For those alive during the days before the break-in and after Nixon's resignation, the truth of something like the cover-up nearly destroyed the US. It made everything the government did, from beneficial social programs to ridiculous bureaucratic mandates, seem petty and tainted by ulterior motive. Before 1972, the vox populae never considered lobbyists, special interests or executive advisors to be anything except equals to the populace behind the power – the voters. After Watergate, all that changed. The government was seen as overrun by people – humans with flaws just like you or I.
This is why Secret Honor shines over other attempts to portray Nixon and his need for approval. It goes for the more human, not inhumane angle of his actions and comes up with something far more sinister. Indeed, this film suggests that Nixon was a pathetic patsy, a quivering fall guy unable to stand up to those who'd love to use and abuse him. As a play and a film Secret Honor wants to get into the thought process of Richard M. Nixon and try to decipher why he was so weakly wicked and so strongly sour. While Oliver Stone would do a much more thorough (and highly dramatized) exercise in psyche evaluation, Secret Honor tries to capture the man and his mind in one Helluva swoop. It checks off the elements that are famous in the Tricky Dick myth – from said nickname and his pathetic piano playing to the infamous "Checkers" Speech – and balls them up into a stuttering, stammering mess who can't quite keep a handle on his deflating dignity. More a hyperactive Hamlet (which the film even name checks) than a shrewd, disillusioned politico, this Nixon is the self-proscribed scapegoat, except instead of being an innocent cast among the infidels, he's a co-conspirator too stupid to know how deep he's in, or unwilling to accept the depth. Between Hall's performance, Freed and Stone's words and Altman's illustration of both, the man behind the mad mubblings is exposed. Unable to finish a thought, completely captured within the historical elements that have framed his Republican figure, Nixon no longer knows himself. His tape-recorded commentary – which, by the way, alludes to the technological reason for his downfall – is an attempt to decipher myth from reality. Unfortunately, this Nixon is too far gone to even begin to understand the difference between the two.
Secret Honor then is not some slow burn meditation on how absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nor is it some tired, tame biography of a once mighty man now fallen and broken. Instead, it's a battle cry. It's a last gasp for greatness intertwined with an attempt at a higher grace. For all his ranting and raving, in the end, all this Nixon really wants is absolution, but not from the source you think. To him, the American people are a lost cause, poisoned by the pens of journalists and mesmerized by the media into believing anything. No, his only hope is via personal forgiveness, to be convinced that he's not a disappointment to himself, or his much beloved mother. Having lived through the death, early on in life, of two of his brothers because of tuberculosis, and understanding that a great deal of his public office success can be chalked up to 'right place, right people, right power, right time' circumstances, all Nixon has left is his family, with its humble upbringing and struggle to survive. In the end, gun in hand and pointed at his head, it is the voice of 'mother', not the condemnations of a nation or the polemics of the people, ringing in his head. If he can find a way to appease his guilt over how his many minor crimes throughout his entire career affected his family, he can find a way to survive another day. Sure, he will take up the tape the following day and try again to defend himself to the court of public opinion. And he may never succeed. But it's his mother that stares at him from the portrait on the wall, a small monochrome picture placed among the oil and canvas effigies of leaders past. If she can forgive him, then he's found a small amount of self-esteem. He will have then found the secret honor he is so desperate for.
Next, Phillip Baker Hall discusses how he became involved in the project, following his time as a respected New York stage actor to the folly of seeking his fortune in Tinsel Town at age 43. Starting from the performance "hook" that got him interested in the part (the notion that Nixon could not finish a thought) to how he made the transition from theater to film, this is a wonderfully enlightening piece. Scattered throughout the interview are clips from a home movie made by original Secret Honor stage director Robert Harders (who Altman brought in to help with the movie) that show many behind the scenes facets of the filming. Hall is genial and genuinely moved by the reception of the film (especially by one Paul Thomas Anderson) and his work in it. He also is shocked that it didn't lead to more jobs in Hollywood. As a personal look back at a career making project, as well as a chance to see some 'making of' material, this 20-minute piece is superb.
There are also two separate commentary tracks for the film, each one focusing on a different overall facet of the story. Co-playwright/Co-screenwriter Freed is featured solo, and his is the more esoteric offering of the pair. More like an essay on the thesis within the work and the cosmic parameters of the Nixon/Watergate myth, Freed (recorded in 1992) enjoys the ability to pat himself on the back for his foresight and foreshadowing. He waxes poetic and prophetic about the effect that Nixon's legacy had on the social fabric of the US, as well as where the truth and the fabrication within the play clash and co-mingle. Altman's contribution (also from 1992) seems, on the other hand, more concerned with the production details. As he does on so many of these tracks, the director dissects his work, pointing out the elements he feels are successful, and those aspects that appear less than winning. Discussing the difficulty in bringing this broad, nearly three-hour play to the screen, he describes how he never saw an actual script (he chalks up all the directorial success to actor Hall and original stager Robert Harders) but, instead, made any creative cuts during the editing phase. He also emphasizes the themes inherent in the piece (Nixon's view of the American system, his opinion of the voting public) and is shocked still at how confrontational some of the material is. He feels that Nixon is a tragic figure in the grand Shakespearean tradition and he does add a little modern context (name checking Dan Quayle, George Bush, Ross Perot and Ronald Reagan) to the custom of politics.
It's interesting to see how both of our guest narrators mention the idea of the 'win/win' mentality of America. Both tune in on the idea from the play that lawyers, as well as politicians, play both sides of the fence against each other, arguing that both pro and con, right and wrong, are perfectly correct. It's a dichotomy that exemplifies all aspects of the film, from the Bohemian Groove meetings with the Council of 100, to the effect of Watergate on the nation. Both Altman and Freed want people to understand that there was a face behind the man, a sect sold on buying power at all levels of influence. They argue that if Nixon stands for anything, it's the idea that the Presidency of the United States was up for sale and very open to influence. And that for however much we thought he was wrong, there were others who knew that what he was doing was right. This is typical of Criterion's work. Both commentaries here perfectly compliment and explain Secret Honor. They provide invaluable insights into a very dense film.