Criterion Corner: Secret Honor (1984) - Reviewed

The great and uncompromisingly unconventional auteur Robert Altman, after a string of both big screen hits and misses (Popeye being his biggest commercial failure at the time), shifted his focus away from the studio system towards smaller lower-budgeted indie fare typically based on stage plays.  Between 1982 and 1985, the filmmaker who began teaching at the University of Michigan directed five features in the vein of tightly produced projects.  Among them was an adaptation of playwright Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone's scathing and incendiary monologue of historical fiction Secret Honor.

Prominently featuring actor Philip Baker Hall, a then-unknown actor who reprised his role from stage to screen, the film is a fictionalized query into the life of Richard Nixon.  Depicting the disgraced president in a single library in his New Jersey home prior to his resignation, Secret Honor watches Nixon for about ninety-minutes, armed with a revolver, Scotch whisky and a tape recorder and ornate security system.  While minimalist in form, Philip Baker Hall all but completely attacks the role with such virulent ferocity covering virtually every emotional and psychological base, making the collegiate production soar. 

The film leaves little wonder as to why Philip Baker Hall was featured so prominently in Paul Thomas Anderson’s first three features, who is such a powerful force of nature here you feel like you’re in the eye of a hurricane.  Foul mouthed, stuttering, quick to interrupt himself mid-sentence in a frenetic outpouring of words and feelings, you can palpably feel the paranoia and anxiety coming off the man.  Though Hall doesn’t look like Nixon physically and the film makes it known immediately we’re watching a work of speculative fiction, his intensity is so great and his mastery of Nixon’s mannerisms so complete that we blindly accept him as the disgraced president himself.

Filmed with the participation of students of the University of Michigan and shot on campus, Secret Honor neither validates nor dispels notions people harbored about the controversial political figure, instead offering a nonjudgmental, quasi-sympathetic portrait of a man in turmoil, depression and rage.  Playwright Donald Freed himself was on Nixon’s hitlist and Altman made no secret of his hatred for Nixon.  For the film to maintain something of a detached documentary eye, lensed darkly in heavy browns by Pierre Mignot, is kind of remarkable. 

Whatever your preconceived notions are about the legacy of Richard Nixon, a frequent favorite subject of cinematic dramatizations, supporters and detractors alike will indeed come away floored by Hall’s frankly astonishing performance.  Yes the film wears the stage play roots with pride and at times it does feel made for television despite getting a theatrical release anyway.  No the film doesn’t come close to the grandiosity of Altman’s The Long Goodbye or Short Cuts.  But for the brief period which Altman dealt in making lean mean independent pictures, Secret Honor is something of a clandestine knockout, a little giant of a film from one of cinema’s greatest directors.

--Andrew Kotwicki