Secret Honor

“Ike once introduced me to a crowd as Nick Dixon, for Christ’s sake!!!”- President Richard Milhous Nixon

The H-Bomb: On one late and lonely night, disgraced former President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) locks himself in his study with a tape recorder, a bottle of Scotch, and a revolver. After clumsily futzing with the tape recorder for a bit, he finally gets it to work and proceeds to deliver a testimonial that begins as an attempt to repair his reputation and salvage his legacy, but as the liquor and his inner bitterness start to kick in, his soliloquy turns into an angry rant that encompasses everything from Cuba, to John Kennedy, to Alger Hiss, to Watergate, and all things in between.

At times he speaks as if he’s in a court of law, addressing the tape recorder as “Your Honor.” Other times he seems to be talking to his late mother, as if begging her forgiveness, and some other times he simply spews insane, drunken profanity at the portraits of Kissinger and Eisenhower that hang in his study… all of it culminating in one of my favorite final moments ever put on screen.

This sadly overlooked 1984 effort was directed by legendary filmmaker Robert Altman (“M.A.S.H.”, “Nashville”) from a stage play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone. This, in a way, is sort of a low key precursor to Oliver Stone’s far more ambitious biopic, “Nixon”, as both films cover much of the same ground (though in “Nixon” we see much of these things, whereas in “Secret Honor” we’re only told about them), and both seem to have the same goal: Trying to understand who the hell Richard Nixon was and what exactly drove him.

In many ways, this is a complete departure for Altman. An anti-Altman film, if you will. His movies are known for having large, ensemble casts and for heavy improvisation. Here, he is working with one single actor, who in turn is sticking to the dialogue as it’s written in the script. Its stage origins are pretty obvious, but Altman shoots and edits in a way that keeps the pace flowing, never allowing for any moments of drag. He also has the good sense to stay out of the way as a director. Allowing his actor to carry the show, Altman simply has his camera observe Nixon being Nixon… or the actor being Nixon, as the case may be.

Speaking of the actor, Philip Baker Hall is simply a revelation in this role. He’s best known these days for his work with Paul Thomas Anderson (particularly “Hard Eight” and “Magnolia”), but here, he doesn’t simply play Nixon, he becomes Nixon. Yeah, I know, you’re all rolling your eyes because what I just said is clichéd as hell, but in this case, it’s the Goddamn truth. His Tricky Dick is a pent up pressure cooker of rage, resentment, paranoia, and regret. He’s a man with so many things swirling inside his head that he often has trouble even completing a thought, then gets furious with himself for not being able to complete said thought, “Uh, Roberto… uh… have the boys send a… uh… you know uh, to Mrs. Nixon… and uh… tell her uh… uh… AH FUCK PISS SHIT COCKSUCKER!!!”

The conviction, the sincerity of the character is apparent in every facial expression and every line of dialogue spoken. Hall inhabits Nixon completely, and by the end, I totally forgot that I was watching an actor give a performance (again, clichéd, I know, shut up). Pulling off a ninety minute one man show is not something that many actors can do. In fact, most can’t. But Hall managed, commanding the screen and our attention the whole time, and I’m mystified that his performance didn’t get more recognition.

Much like Oliver Stone’s take on Nixon, there are things asserted here that can be questioned, such as the notion that Nixon initiated the Watergate break-in in order to draw people’s attention away from “more serious crimes.” Whether there’s truth to that, or if it’s just the product of some liberal writer’s overactive imagination, I don’t know. What I do know is that “Secret Honor” is a fascinating little film, the kind of under-seen gem that “The Bin” was invented for,  that anyone with an interest in this period of American history should see.

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