Criterion // 1984 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Bromley // October 19th, 2004
A political fable.
Legendary director Robert Altman's one-man-show about former President Richard Nixon, Secret Honor, finally comes to DVD after years of languishing in laserdisc limbo; even more exciting is that it's being put out by The Criterion Collection.
A recently resigned President Nixon stumbles into his private office late one night. He pours himself a drink, then another. He takes out his tape recorder, sets up a microphone on his desk, and presses record. He begins to speak. Accusations are made. It is a confession. A catharsis. A condemnation of the people and events surrounding the Nixon presidency. For the next ninety minutes, Richard Nixon's deepest personal and political secrets are revealed.
Robert Altman's Secret Honor is like a two person high-wire act, requiring the constant balance and mutual support of two men: director Robert Altman and star Phillip Baker Hall. Had either man lost his footing at any point, the whole thing would have collapsed. Its success is a testament to the considerable talent and skill of both participants, creating a haunting and hypnotic portrait of one of our country's most famously flawed figures, alternately complex and tragic. Essentially, the viewer witnesses a film on two levels, succeeding in both form and content: a brilliant (if fictionalized) character study on President Richard Nixon, and the extremely delicate balancing act between director and actor.
I first became aware of Phillip Baker Hall in his role as the aging gambler, Sydney, in Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant Hard Eight; his performance in that film ranks among my all-time favorites. He's an actor of tremendous grace and subtlety, with one of the great sad faces and bullish, gravelly voices in film. For the most part, though, Hall remains in obscurity; with the exception of a few directors (like Anderson, who cites Hall as his favorite actor of all time), he remains one of those performers who's recognizable -- he's amazingly prolific, showing up in bit roles for films you never realized he's in -- but unnamable. After a career spanning over thirty years, it's only been recently that he's begun to gain recognition, thanks in part to films like Hard Eight and Magnolia. What's amazing, then, is that Hall's work in Secret Honor did not turn him into a household name twenty years ago. Few films are founded on the premise of being carried by a single actor; when you factor in that the actor was previously unknown and that the film actually works, it makes Hall's achievement all the more impressive.
Hall's work as Nixon doesn't necessarily work because of its range, but rather the opposite -- he's astoundingly consistent. The Nixon of Secret Honor doesn't run the gambit of emotions, gradually shifting from anger to sadness; a lesser film would have eventually had him breaking down into tears out of shame and guilt. Hall's Nixon, though, is a mad dog for the full ninety minutes, barking and spewing rage, profanity, and invective at a laundry list of political participants: Kissinger, Kennedy, Castro, Liddy, and so on. He plays the man to almost Shakespearean heights (and admits in the interview included on the disc that going over the top was the only way he felt the character could work); a tragic figure undone by his own unquenchable ambition and destructive self-loathing. He is a man so driven to succeed that he was forced to fail, and it is that failure in the eyes of all (including the former Presidents, who look down on him from their paintings on his office walls), and especially himself, that haunts him. There are moments that do not work -- namely those in which Nixon speaks to his absent mother -- but they are far outweighed and outshone by those that do.
A disclaimer opens the film, establishing it as a work of fiction, despite the presence of and references to actual historical figures. Secret Honor is not a biopic about Richard Nixon -- not any more than, say, Andrew Fleming's Dick is. It's a mediation on the man, post-Presidency; it doesn't construct its own historical reality the way Oliver Stone's Nixon does, but it does construct its own interpretation of who Nixon was and allows its authors, Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, to speculate on what drove the man to his eventual unraveling. It also develops its own paranoid theories on historical events, positing that Marilyn Monroe was, in fact, murdered, and that Nixon brought Castro to the United States in the interest of assassinating him personally. Regardless of its fictional origins, the film is a politically scathing work.
Altman, a director accustomed to making sprawling ensemble pieces, is out of his element -- no multiple characters or overlapping dialogue here. He's forced to draw upon a new bag of tricks, keeping a tighter focus and a greater intimacy with his subject than in previous films. He even takes a different visual approach: typically, Altman allows his camera to be an objective observer -- a "fly on the wall" -- weaving in and out of events and conversations in a seemingly random fashion. Here, though, the camera is far more participatory, tracking Hall's every move and forcing itself upon him unrelentingly. The results are uncomfortably intimate, and that's just what Altman wants -- Nixon cannot escape this confession, and neither can we. He (Altman) sees to it that his camera remains fluid and forever moving, too, instilling a feeling of restlessness in the viewer that underscores Nixon's emotional headspace (and, for more practical reasons, keeps the film from being nothing more than a "stage play on film"). The film proves to be a real change of pace for Altman, and the experiment pays off.
Secret Honor comes to DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, who, release for release, put out the best DVDs on the market. The film was not originally made with an emphasis on its technical merits -- the dramatic/cinematic construction and performance were the focus, so there's a very basic approach to the audio and video components. Criterion replicates those faithfully, presenting the film in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio and with its original mono soundtrack. The source material hasn't aged terribly well, making for several visible artifacts and a layer of grain on the image, but the colors are so rich and so deep that you hardly notice the other flaws. Though it's not perfect, this is the best possible looking and sounding version of Secret Honor we're likely to get; that we're getting it at all (thanks again, Criterion) is reason enough to be thankful.
I recently reviewed Universal's release of the big-budget blockbuster Van Helsing, which had over twice as many extras as those found on Secret Honor, none of which were even half as valuable; Criterion's economy of material is first rate. Essentially, there are only four extras included in Criterion's release (excluding an essay by Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington), but each serves the film brilliantly in its own capacity -- we get reflections and interpretations on the film from every significant perspective. First is director Altman's commentary track, originally recorded in 1992 for Criterion's laserdisc issuing of the film. Altman consistently records excellent commentaries, and his work on Secret Honor is no exception; he discusses his choices, working with Hall, and some of how he came onto the project. What distinguishes Altman's track from the masses of others (the market has actually become overcrowded with commentary tracks, in this reviewer's opinion), is that, like several of his '70s counterparts -- Scorsese or Coppola, for example -- Altman speaks about film not just as a director, but as an artist. His thoughts tend to revolve around the form itself, rather than the standard "how we did what/anecdotal" tracks found on most DVDs. The second commentary, by co-writer Donald Freed, is almost as rewarding, discussing the formation of the screenplay, designed as a tirade against virtually everyone Nixon had known as one long, profane, and unending sentence.
Rounding out the creative side of the film's genesis is Phillip Baker Hall, recorded in a brand new twenty-minute interview exclusively for this disc. That Hall provides an interview in lieu of a feature-length commentary initially seemed disappointing, but the content of the interview is so strong that there's little more he could have said in ninety minutes without beginning to repeat himself (or the others recorded on the disc). Hall is unusually smart and down to earth about acting, speaking about it practically and artistically without delving into self-aggrandizing (he recognizes that he's still not very well known) or self-importance. As if providing each of the three primary creative perspectives on Secret Honor isn't enough, Criterion also supplies 80 minutes worth of archival footage of Richard Nixon himself, putting many of the film's passages into a kind of historical context. Though the feature hasn't really been constructed to hold up on its own, it does make for a fascinating counterpart to the film.
Secret Honor is not Altman's best film -- that honor probably belongs to Nashville or McCabe and Mrs. Miller -- but it is an essential Altman film, and features one of the great film performances of the past twenty years from one of our most underrated actors.
Secret Honor: Criterion Collection is hereby pardoned. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1984
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary by Director Robert Altman
* Commentary by Co-Writer Donald Freed
* Video Interview with Phillip Baker Hall
* 81 Minutes of President Nixon Archival Film
* Essay by Film Critic Michael Wilmington