The Movies-to-Watch List: Secret Honor (1984)

Holy cow.

When I added Secret Honor to the Movies To Watch list, I had never heard of it before. The recommendation came from Jon Morris and was seconded by Leonard Pierce, and that’s a combo I couldn’t really ignore.

The movie is a stage play filmed by Robert Altman, one of several he did in the 80s. In it, a fictional Richard Nixon is in his study, thinking over his life. Even with a life like Nixon’s that might be an iffy proposition. However, the result is incredible.

The sole actor is Philip Baker Hall, who I also was not familiar with, but who puts in a jaw-dropping performance. Nixon is a combination of drunk, senile, paranoid, and Nixon, and Hall goes all over the emotional map with him. Backing him up is the writing by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone. Their Nixon is a caged animal, vicious and resentful, but also scared and pitiful. He’s attempting to rewrite his history, as we do, into a story of his own heroism and strength of character, but even he can’t always make it stick. When the facts start to bump up against his narrative, he veers off on another tangent, presumably to smooth it all over later. (The entire time he is recording all of this for an unseen transcriber, and he keeps imploring this aide to erase the bad parts.)

As Nixon enters his study to begin the proceedings there are several important props. There’s a glass of scotch that keeps getting refilled, the tape recorder he’s speaking into, a bank of outside security monitors that he switches to all feature him from the camera in the room, and a loaded revolver. There are also portraits in the room of Washington, Lincoln, Wilson, Eisenhower, and Henry Kissinger. Hall incorporates all of this into an intricately choreographed dance of anger, sorrow, and madness.

I admit, I don’t know much about Nixon other than the very broad strokes. A lot passed by me, but it doesn’t really matter. You know enough. Still, after watching it I headed out to Wikipedia and filled up on backstory, something I probably should have done first, and got some more of the historical references. It’s not about the historical references, though, not really. There’s so much more going on here than just a commentary on Nixon’s career. For that, you’d only need the Wikipedia read. Secret Honor goes far beyond that. Thanks, Jon and Leonard!

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