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With: Philip Baker Hall
Written by: Donald Freed, Arthur M. Stone
Directed by: Robert Altman
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/15/1984
IMDB

Secret Honor (1984)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Nixonian

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1980, Robert Altman suffered a giant financial flop with Popeye. This came after a decade of brilliant artistic success in a Hollywood that cared for such things. But in 1980, the blockbuster system was budding, and the powers that be only cared for cash. And so Altman retreated into what is now considered his "low" period. He worked steadily, but making low-profile films and TV movies based on plays with small, unobtrusive casts and crews.

He made a stunning "comeback" in 1992 with The Player, but many of his overlooked films from this lost period have started to come back into play, notably his satirical TV mini-series "Tanner '88" and Secret Honor, both recently released to DVD by the Criterion Collection.

Shot with his film class at the University of Michigan, Secret Honor is without a doubt the best of Altman's films from the 1980s, featuring a one-man cast (Philip Baker Hall) and a screenplay (by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone) left almost entirely intact from its stage run. One could easily make the claim that Altman did little or nothing on this film, but clearly his touch is there. One has only to imagine a lesser director staging this same film to understand its success.

The scenario has former United States President Richard Milhous Nixon entering his study for the night. He plans to tape record his thoughts, defending himself against the crimes of which he has been accused. The film's most important props are a gun, a bottle of whisky and the tape recorder, in addition to a piano that belonged to his mother, and several portraits (including Henry Kissinger) to which the president speaks.

Hall makes an energetic attempt to capture the tidal wave of despondency that Nixon might have felt, using a Nixonian way of speaking: stammering mixed with sudden, barked curse words and a constant failure to finish a thought or a metaphor. It's a furious performance, full of pain and rage and power, and it put Hall on the map in movies, leading to other memorable performances in films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

Any other director might have staged the film in front of an audience or "opened it up" by using other characters or rooms. But Altman merely sets his roaming, unpredictable camera in the one room. Sometimes it follows the president and sometimes not. Altman's greatest invention is a row of surveillance monitors whose cameras are all pointed inside the room. We can see four tiny Nixons in the black-and-white screens, often unaware that they're being spied upon. It adds immeasurably to the film's paranoia and tension.

Most astonishing is the non-partisan slant that the film takes. It does not ignore Nixon and his cabinet's shady dealings, but neither does it ignore the humanity of the man himself. We begin to understand him -- or at least this representation of him -- in a human way that press coverage or television speeches could never capture.

DVD Details: Criterion's DVD is presented in its original television aspect ratio, 1.33:1, and does not need letterboxing. It also contains optional subtitles. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington provides the printed liner notes. It comes with two commentary tracks, one by writer Freed and another by Altman, both recorded back in 1992 for the laserdisc release. It also comes with a new 22-minute interview with Hall, and -- best of all -- an 81-minute collection of speeches from the real Nixon. Watching them today, especially in this volatile political climate, gives a fascinating perspective.

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