Secret Honor Movie Review

Described in its opening credits as a "political myth," 1984's Secret Honor brings a legendary bit of American theater to the screen: Philip Baker Hall's tour de force turn as President Richard Nixon, originally staged for the Los Angeles Actors' Theatre, here filmed by Robert Altman as part of a filmmaking class he was then teaching at the University of Michigan. Although Altman is known as a director likely to stray from a script, his film version is faithful to the Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone play, and Hall reportedly reprises closely the performance he developed with the play's director, Robert Harders. (Altman bills Harders as "associate director.") If the project sounds unlikely, a reminder may be needed that Altman developed a few more plays for the screen around that time, such as Streamers and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. And for those who have come to associate Altman with well-populated films, a surprise: Secret Honor boasts a cast of exactly one.

It's a great cast just the same. Today we see Philip Baker Hall everywhere - his filmography for the past two years includes eight titles - but in 1984 he was largely known for his TV work and, for a lucky few, Secret Honor. His performance, obviously, is central to the film's success, and it's a doozie. But a quick look at the material will help to show why.

Secret Honor chronicles one rocky, hypothetical evening in the life of the disgraced president, shortly after his resignation and subsequent presidential pardon. He's holed up in his office, dictating to a tape recorder his defense before an imaginary judge and a jury that seems to comprise the American people in their entirety. You could say that he's not doing so good; sometimes, for instance, he seems to be Nixon speaking and sometimes an attorney representing Nixon. And he's poured two drinks, loaded a nickel-plated .357 magnum, and suffered several false starts on the tape recorder before he ever says a word.

Nixon's theme here is that he's been wronged again and again, and by just about everyone he knows. Besides his mother and wife, his kindest words may be his description of Jack Ruby as a "patriotic nightclub owner." Kissinger, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Agnew, the founding fathers ("snotty, angry shits"), and even Gerald Ford bear a lot of his abuse. And as the president's drink tally mounts and his rant strays further and further afield, a darker intrigue than Watergate emerges: a conspiracy by a shadowy entity known as the Committee of 100, in which Nixon was implicit, whose aims amount to high treason. Playwrights Hall and Stone intend seriously the hypothesis their Nixon sets forth: the Watergate scandal was one invented by the president to distract attention from far greater crimes.

Philip Baker Hall commands attention through it all. While his physical resemblance to Nixon is iffy, he's got the man's mannerisms cold, and he maintains close control even as his character loses same. Near the film's end Baker's President Nixon complains to a portrait of Woodrow Wilson that the press has painted him as a crazy man, one who reeled drunk through the White House talking to portraits; Hall is a skilled enough actor to wring the lines for their humor and their pathos simultaneously. It's no mean feat. Parts of Secret Honor threaten to lose the audience, and references to past public figures make the threat greater today. My guess is that Hall's clenched-teeth presentation will be enough to keep restive eyes on the screen.

Secret Honor is newly available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, with commentaries from Altman and Freed, a new interview with Hall, and an original archival film featuring footage from throughout Nixon's career.

Aka Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon, Secret Honor: A Political Myth, Lords of Treason.

Cast & Crew

Director :

Producer :


Secret Honor Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 1984


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