Directed by Robert Altman
A Robert Altman movie typically features large, ensemble casts with overlapping, occasionally improvised dialogue, and an emphasis on the energy of a room over one particular individual. The best of these might be Nashville (1975), a sprawling film which covers too many characters to remember and ends on a somber note celebrating community in the face of adversity. It’s easy to miss what someone’s saying in a given moment, but the text is less important than the feeling. There’s the hum of a room of gamblers, the glares of frontiersman towards an outsider and the rhythmic back and force of studio executives out to brunch. His films capture a tone through the ensemble and through their unique mannerisms which add up to something greater than the whole. An Altman character on his or her own isn’t enough to communicate the entirety of the films from which they were plucked.
That being said, Secret Honor is a one man performance, with Philip Baker Hall playing former president Richard Nixon. The film takes place in a single room over the course of 90 minutes of real time. Nixon, a partially fictionalized version of the real man, exists in a vacuum. We have an idea of what the story world is like, since it is meant to be the real one, but we learn all about the paranoid world Nixon has created for himself.
This is a story about Richard Nixon’s personal worldview after his impeachment. He spends most of the story talking into a tape recorder, and after any of several long rants he will instruct someone named Roberto to erase that part of the tape. These recordings have no discernible purpose other than for Nixon to document his grievances and to emphasize his paranoia.
Nixon mostly just recounts his entire political career, everything from his initial run for office to his impeachment. He talks about past presidents, about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Kennedy “boys,” Lyndon Johnson, suspected communist Alger Hiss whose prosecution at Nixon’s hands thrust him into a political spotlight, and he even discusses his dog, Checkers.
The film, from what I can tell, is an experiment to try and get inside the mind of Richard Nixon. What was he like behind closed doors with a glass of whiskey and a tape recorder? Beyond that he also has a series of security cameras, one of which is pointed at his own desk, as well as a revolver.
So the Richard Nixon in this story is kind of insane, but it’s telling that it feels completely right. The man was deeply paranoid and aggressive. He felt victimized by any number of people, whether Dwight Eisenhower, the Kennedys, Kissinger, J. Edgar Hoover, the Democrats, or even just America itself.
It’s this paranoia that brought about his downfall after the Watergate break in, but it could have happened even earlier. The portrait of the president we see in this movie shows him as prideful, resentful, haunted, vengeful and delirious. He’s a bit of a madman, something like a superhero villain ranting and raving in his secret lair. To him everything is unjust, and no one can be trusted except himself.
Nixon might be plotting some kind of return to the spotlight, but there is no such plot to this story. We never expect Nixon to go anywhere, to become anything or even to make progress in his own thinking. He never comes to any serious conclusion about any of his gripes, instead just moving onto the next frustration. After so many of these tirades he just asks his assistant to erase the tapes later on, thus nullifying any possible progress he may have made.
You can picture the drunk president waking up the following morning with no recollection of what happened. All he would have to go on are these tapes, many of which would no longer exist.
So the story is intended to be futile. Nixon is a shell of whatever he once was, and trapped in his retirement office he has no punches left to throw other than to side with his own self-righteousness. Isolated, he becomes a victim of his own insanity, further separating himself from the world and from the way others see him.
The film ends with Nixon shouting over and over again, “fuck ’em!” as the camera pans down to glimpse him through the security camera monitor in his office. We often look at Nixon through this monitor, like we’re spying on him. The intended effect could be any number of things, something about surveillance or a way to further isolate and box in the character, but my main takeaway was that these shots were a reminder that we only know Nixon, like so many celebrities, through their own performances.
Politicians in particular are limited by this. We see them most of the time on tv or online, maybe in print and rarely in person. Even then they’re likely no larger than a speck, glimpsed from far away. We only know of Nixon what we read or had told to us. If we were to go completely off of his own self-assessments, all carefully pre-written and rehearsed, we would think he’s just a determined guy trying his best.
Secret Honor is an attempt to get inside the mind of a celebrity of sorts. Even in this film, however, Nixon remains performative. He speaks into a microphone and occasionally looks into the camera, both the one in the office and the one through which we watch the film unfold. As president Nixon used to perform for millions of people, but now he just performs for himself, the only person left willing to hear his story.
So maybe there’s something here about what it means to perform. Is it that we’re spreading a lie or that when your entire life is built on acting it’s hard to stop?
Up Next: Lost Highway (1997), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Bob le Flambeur (1956)