Secret Honor (Robert Altman, 1984)

Robert Altman had certainly directed adaptations of previously published works before “Secret Honor.”  Nevertheless, his style is one that wouldn’t seem to suggest any kind of strict adherence to a set script or adaptation of another person’s written work, what with lots of people mumbling and talking over each other, making for lots and lots of nearly incoherent dialogue that you’d swear has to be improvised – and I’m sure a lot of the dialogue in films like “MASH” and “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” are as improvised as the day is long, and those films, “McCabe” especially, are that much better and feel that much more authentic for it.  Apparently, “Secret Honor” is a rather faithful adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone’s play (they wrote the adaptation as well), but by god I was having a tough time believing that, unless every little muttered curse or bout of gibberish or stuttering “um, um, um” or just about every other line of completely nonsensical ravings that comes out of Philip Baker Hall’s mouth was actually written into a play/screenplay as we see it on the screen.  Whether it’s actually written that way (against all odds) or Philip Baker Hall improvised much of his 90-minute monologue/confessional as the disgraced 37th President of the United States, this is an energetic, emotional, sympathetic, manic, insane, sad, funny, draining, and without a doubt tiring as hell performance.  It’s also amazing.  Frank Langella may’ve looked and sounded more like the real Richard Milhous Nixon in last year’s “Frost/Nixon”, and Anthony Hopkins may’ve had more of an opportunity to expand upon the man in the sprawling epic “Nixon,” but Hall, who can barely be passed off as even a distant cousin of Nixon, and who you could argue dives right into the overacting pool at points in his 90 minute discourse for his tape recorder, nonetheless brings a pathos and a level of humanity to the man who’s become a reviled, infamous legend long after Watergate like no performer ever has.  This was an amazing performance, which alone elevated “Secret Honor” to pretty much an amazing film.

This movie had a real opportunity to fall into the dreaded realm of being no more than a stage play that’s merely performed while a camera happens to be filming it.  Indeed, the entire film is comprised of a single set of Nixon’s well-furnished, portrait-laden study; enter Nixon, looking into the fireplace before uttering a line in true over embellished play-like entrance fashion, and since he’s the one and only character in this piece of tinkered-with non-fiction (actually, by the end it really is just fiction…I hope), he really goes over the deep end with his histrionics, as if making up for the lack of other cast members – he has to dominate the stage, after all.  But there’s something about Altman’s attention to detail that does in fact make this a significantly cinematic experience; obviously Hall’s performance is front and center and is pretty much the only reason you need to see this film, but just as Sidney Lumet used the camera to make that jury room in “12 Angry Men” seem more and more constrictive and suffocating as that film went along, Altman’s eye for all the details of this small but important setting really puts us in the paranoid, tortured mind of Hall’s Richard Nixon.  If Hall is the star, then his co-stars are the portraits.  As Nixon goes deeper and deeper into the recesses of his mind, talking a mile a minute about god knows what, the emotionless, never-changing faces of Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Gerald Ford, Dwight Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, and Nixon’s own mother quietly regard him as he regards them with anything but quiet.  You and I would look at these paintings and see indifference in their eyes – but when we see a deranged Nixon lament how Kissinger, the man who we learn supplied the Shah of Iran with young boys, won the Nobel Peace Prize while Nixon was accused of stealing silverware from the White House, the camera cuts to a close-up of Kissinger’s painted face, and all of a sudden that look on Kissinger’s face is not of cold indifference, but of cruel apathy and sarcastic pity for the insanely jealous and enraged man literally kneeling before him.  On the surface, these cuts to paintings, and to the line of four television screens that Nixon’s using to watch his own performance, may seem like surface style on Altman’s part, but when Nixon’s having the ultimate identity crisis, I’m sure he doesn’t know who he really is either, so those images of his faint form against a fuzzy blue backdrop is perfectly appropriate.  Who is this man?

At least as portrayed by Hall, what a pitiful, self-loathing troll Nixon became after his public disgrace.  Never mind the details of the ninety-minute rant, because I hardly remember any of those with just how zany this performance gets (rest assured, it does delve into both confirmed fact and utter fiction for quite an interesting combo – a cool what-if of Nixon’s life that you know cannot be fact, but you’re too enthralled by to dismiss as fiction), but just look at what a mess he is, and how Hall portrays that mess so compellingly.  Immediately, you get the feeling that his mind is running much, much too fast and his voice simply cannot keep up with his cacophony of thoughts: instead of natural denouements to sentences, his ‘fucks’ and ‘shits’ and ‘cocksuckers’ and ‘heh-hehs’ and ‘um-um-ums’ act as periods and question marks and exclamation marks.  What’s supposed to be kind of a mock trial in which he acts as his own defense attorney before an imaginary judge weaves in and out of any semblance of coherence as he sips his whisky and gets more and more drunk (and Hall makes that increasing drunkenness impressively palpable), in which he addresses himself in either the first or third person at any time, sings, dances, shifts the subject from Watergate, to his youth and the death of his siblings to TB ,to losing to Kennedy, to the mysterious ‘committee of 100’, all in the matter of a few seconds, all before collecting himself and imploring the offscreen Roberto to erase all that nonsense up to, err, you know, err… Some would call it overacting, but I call it the closest thing I’ve ever seen in a fictional performance to a bodily representation of stream-of-consciousness.  The mind is a scary, infinitely expansive place, and none scarier than a tortured soul like this.  It’s a wonder Nixon is as composed as he is when he first walks into the study, glass in hand, quietly regarding the fireplace – it’s pretty damn obvious he was itching at the seams to let all of his demons out, and boy does he.

Nixon’s hatred of men like Kissinger and Eisenhower is so palpable that those faces on the paintings take on a new light even in our eyes, which is essentially the theme of the whole affair – we feel his hatred of others so fully that we, like him, are blind to the one he hates above all others: himself.  I hesitate to call this film Richard Nixon’s 90-minute confessional, because what is there to confess when he still blames most if not all of his misfortune on others?  He blames his general uneasiness on his mother (his reading of his ‘your faithful dog, Richard’ letter is chilling), his early political inadequacy on Eisenhower and Kennedy, and blames Kissinger for…well, just about everything.  And when the equivalent of the film’s climax arrives, and Nixon reveals the so-called true nature of Watergate, that true nature allows him to, in a way, consider Watergate his finest hour, his secret honor – again shifting blame away from himself, but in a way, his argument is intoxicatingly appealing and convincing.  We start to believe, and he definitely believes.  We’re just sinking deeper and deeper into his psyche, which is why this simple format – one man speaking in one space for 90 minutes – couldn’t be more intimate and enlightening about the mind.  He’s so maniacally enthusiastic about pouring every little secret out of his mouth (with no particular pattern) and getting the 8 kajillion pound monkey off his back, all while blaming others for his own inadequacies while merely pitying himself and his station in life, that it’s both his catharsis and his sinking deeper into his own misery, all at once.

I’m not quite sure what to make of this iteration of Richard Nixon, compared to what other performances or what the history books tell you – he’s still a loathsome creature, but a tortured one, and maybe he did just stumble onto a demonized Scarlet Letter persona through lots and lots of bad luck.  His penchant for blaming everyone but himself, painting or otherwise, for his sad fate is pathetic, but behind his drunken ravings and yelling at paintings is a man who quite obviously hates himself and is truly tormented, and in such a pathetic state, we automatically take pity, not of the famed Richard Nixon, but of any given broken shell of a man who’s been reduced to talking to himself and to paintings and pacing around a locked room in a ratty smoking jacket.  We coldly regard him like the unwavering faces of those paintings. The final line that Philip Baker Hall’s Richard Nixon grandly shouts and then repeats over and over again before the credits role perfectly encapsulates his mindset and his worldview and his paranoid view of others, perhaps more so than the 90 minutes of rambling that came before.  But boy are those 90 minutes necessary to come to that conclusion.


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