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Secret Honor

Posted on the 07 August 2014 by Christopher Saunders
Secret HonorRichard Nixon's had some strange cinematic incarnations, but Robert Altman's Secret Honor (1984) takes the cake. Many consider this one-man show - 90 minutes of Nixon sweating, pacing and howling with rage - a masterpiece. I find it insufferable nonsense.
Secret Honor draws from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone. Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) locks himself in a private study with liquor, a handgun and a tape recorder. He fulminates against his enemies, defends his conduct as President, lashes out at enemies real and imagined. Riddled with guilt and self-loathing, Nixon even contemplates suicide - or is a political comeback more palatable?
Altman and the playwrights have clearly done their research: Honor inundates us with Nixonian arcana. We hear at great, albeit disjointed length about Nixon's troubled childhood in Whittier, his stern father and smothering mother, his thoughts about marriage and the media and Checkers and Henry Kissinger. No stone of Nixon's life, career or thought process remains unturned. If this were a term paper we'd give Altman a passing grade, but Secret Honor purports to be entertainment.
What is Altman on about, exactly? At best, Secret Honor reduces Nixon - one of the 20th Century's most complex, fascinating figures - to a lunatic sideshow. He raves, he swears, bellows and pleads - he barks like a dog, for God's sake. When not cussing and screaming, he fumbles with a tape recorder, watches surveillance monitors like a Bond villain and waves a pistol around. His fulminations grow utterly exhausting after 15 minutes - and there's 75 more to go.
Philip Baker Hall plays Nixon so gratingly over-the-top, all bellowing rage and theatrical stares, that it's impossible to empathize even in his more vulnerable moments. Certainly he doesn't capture the Nixon of the Watergate tapes, more of a collected sociopath than raving lunatic. The real Dick Nixon mixed ruthless ambition and destructive neurosis with flashes of brilliance. This Nixon is so schizo he couldn't drool into a cup. Honor doesn't even build to a crescendo because it starts at 11 and stays there.
Secret Honor opens with a title claiming that the film marks "an attempt to understand" Nixon. About the only "understanding" I gleaned from it as that Americans twice elected a nutjob to the White House. Ultimately Honor resembles its protagonist: puffed full of hot air, bursting with incoherent rage, and finally intolerable.

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