SECRET HONOR (director: Robert Altman; screenwriters: Donald Freed/Arnold M. Stone/based on Donald Freed and Arnold Stone’s one-man play; cinematographer: Pierre Mignot; editor: Juliet Weber; music: George Burt; cast: Philip Baker Hall (President Richard Nixon); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Altman; Criterion Collection; 1984)
“The pic delivers a fascinating story in a fascinating way.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A filmed version of the Donald Freed and Arnold Stone’s one-man play. The disgraced Richard M. Nixon has been pardoned for the Watergate scandal and in fictionalized self-serving responses ruminates over his public shame and suggests that he was really a ‘small fry’ and nothing more than the pawn of a sinister vaguely described “committee of 100” seeking global power (they were mysterious men of wealth who supported his campaigns as political kingpins and wanted him to continue the Vietnam War because it was so profitable for them, but he refused; though he admitted he sold his soul to them and did their bidding while in office).
Robert Altman (“Nashville”/”Gosford Park”/”Short Cuts”)keeps things overbaked, as he dwells on hyperbole to tell the Nixon downfall. To make things less stagy, Altman employs a student crew at the University of Michigan to make it more cinematic with use of many active cameras.Philip Baker Hall plays Nixon as a melancholy megalomaniac. Dressed in a velvet smoking jacket, in the study of his New Jersey home, surrounded by security cameras, oil portraits of former Presidents such as Washington, Lincoln, Eisenhower, Wilson and Kennedy, and one of his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. The suicidal Nixon uses the portraits as witnesses, as he talks to them to make his case about why he is so scorned by the press. He also keeps a pistol on his desk and drinks from a bottle of Scotch and freely talks unscripted into a tape recorder, promoting himself as a victim of the big boys with money and saying his only fault was that he went into politics because he wanted power. After getting increasingly drunk and his speech becoming slurred, he gives us his twisted version of his childhood upbringing with a Quaker mom and sadly tells of his two brothers who died from TB, how he was recruited into politics by an ad in the newspaper he answered asking for a war veteran who wanted to be a politician, his Congressional victory in 1950 over Helen Gahagan Douglas by using dirty tactics to smear her as a Red, and his resentment against Ike, Henry, liberals, kikes, the Kennedy’s for stealing the presidential election in Chicago, and the big money boys who never accepted him as one of them. When talking about his resignation, he mocks the pardon–sneeringly saying to get a pardon one has to be convicted and he was never convicted of anything.Nixon claims his resignation was an act of supreme patriotism that shielded the country from an even bigger scandal.
This fictionalized lunatic rant captures this almost tragic Shakespearean figure in a way that was not possible from his media coverage, and gives Nixon bashers some more reasons to despise him and those who are neutral to maybe sympathize with the flawed man or, better yet, wonder how such an obviously devious man fooled the country for such a long time. How on target it is, mixing fact and fiction into such a delicious diatribe, probably depends on your political and personal views.
For me it’s an enjoyable oddball indie film, one in which I found Hall’s enervating paranoid performance to be mesmerizing. The actor’s bravura performance does remind me of Nixon, even if I found that Nixon’s persecution complex needed no more exaggeration through use of hyperbolic fictionalized responses from him. Nevertheless I found it all entertaining and the pic delivers a fascinating story in a fascinating way.
Bear in mind, that the film begins with a disclaimer in its opening credit that ”it is not a work of history but of fiction.” If seen in that light, it works well.
REVIEWED ON 4/18/2011 GRADE: A-
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ