Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 17 October 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
reviews: Tanner ’88
Richard M. Nixon enters his vacant office and pours alternate glasses of liquor, placing them, perhaps inadvertently, at opposite ends of the room for increased availability. He sits at his desk, loads the cylinder of a revolver, activates a tape recorder and begins speaking. For the remainder of the film he addresses the aspects of his resignation from office as his words become increasingly fraught. He is surrounded by portraits of Lincoln, Washington, and Eisenhower, and their static eyes seem to display a permanent expression of disappointment. This film is a fictional portrait of a man whose legacy as an American president has become one of exceptional conspiracy.
Secret Honor opens with a disclaimer that enforces its fiction, declaring itself “A Political Myth.” Being that the source of the film was a scandal recorded in media throughout the world (footage of Nixon’s resignation address and subpoena response is available on the Criterion disc), the film has the auspice of a confession that occurs without the media’s exploitation. Contrarily, there is the suggestion that without media, this account is purely invalid—it is this notion for media to authenticate that encourages the fierce, revelatory spirit of the film. Without a device to record his words, it is implied, a President says nothing.
Appropriately, Nixon opts to record his intensified declarations and blames. He has additionally a series of four video monitors, connected to a network of cameras in or around his office. Early in the film, as his words become more heated, he routes each monitor to the camera pointed at him; his face in each one multiply substantiates his admissions.
Secret Honor was adapted from a stage production, and concentrates entirely on its only character. The film credits Robert Harders, who directed the original theater production, as an associate director, yet seems to be natural material for Robert Altman despite the aspects the film inherits from the play. The camerawork is rendered in Altman’s familiar fluidity, and the film evokes his reactionary politics—after all, it was released when Nixon’s scandal was a fresh controversy.
This film may be distinguished for dissenting politics (Nixon is depicted as suicidal in this film) as well as a worthy candidate to Altman’s canon, but it is ultimately a showcase for the expressive, varied performance of Philip Baker Hall. He doesn’t resemble Nixon directly (his slicked-back hair becomes frenzied by the end of the film), but the performance seems incredibly apt. After watching footage of Nixon’s quiet resignation, the image if a man ranting drunk about his office and shouting final contentions into a microphone clenched to his wild lips is how we picture Nixon outside of poised White House press conferences, given the context of the President’s crimes. Hall embodies this particular deceit extraordinarily, to the point that the performance transcends the political baggage of the film itself.