THERE IS A muffled rumble of truth in Secret Honor, Robert Altman’s film of the Donald Freed-Arnold M. Stone play about the undiscovered life of Richard Nixon. It is a strange sound, unlike anything we have heard before, which partly explains why this is such a fascinating movie when it doesn’t look much like a movie at all.
Secret Honor has only one character, the former president, played on film as he was on the stage of the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre by the remarkable Philip Baker Hall. Hall never gets out of Nixon’s paneled study, where he grouses and paces like a prisoner in a mahogany cell for 90 minutes, delivering an astonishing monologue fueled by a lifetime of stored-up bile and half a fifth of Chivas Regal.
That the monologue sustains itself in front of Altman’s cameras is no mean feat: One-man shows are not the most cinematic vehicles of this or any other year. But Secret Honor manages to hold our attention, so intriguing is the author’s ambivalence toward Nixon and so unsettling is Hall’s performance.
Hall does not mimic the Mad Bomber. His head doesn’t swivel anxiously from side to side, as in David Frye’s and Dan Aykroyd’s parodies of the former president’s furtive tendencies. The voice is not the same. Hall’s hair and nose and jowls make us think of Nixon, but he and the filmmakers are up to something more than a physical imitation.
What they have constructed is neither a Nixon joke nor an apologia but a dramatic rumination on the real events of Nixon’s life, an imaginary trip back down a dark and thorny memory lane. It’s an attempt to find the troubled heart of a man so many Americans believe did not have a heart.
The idea is that Nixon sits down to tape-record a final accounting of his life and disastrous times. (Fittingly, he has trouble at first getting the machine to work.) He pulls out a large chromed revolver and places it on the desk, raising the specter of self-destruction as conclusion to his febrile memoir.
He can’t shake the nightmare that he is sitting through his impeachment trial and frequently addresses the microphone, “My client, your honor…,” playing the parts of both the accused and counsel. He tries to record the simple and bitter facts for posterity, but his addled mind wanders off at every opportunity into a rage of resentment – resentment of Eisenhower, Kissinger, the Kennedys, the war protesters, financial backers everyone who ever squeezed him a little smaller.
At the end of each snorting tirade he is jarred back to his other reality and implores an unseen aide to erase everything he has just said. He doesn’t really want the world to know the truth, after all. His honor, as well as his vulgarity, will remain a secret.
It’s an unexpectedly moving sight, the initial humor of the situation dissolving into pathos. Afforded this intimate glimpse of Nixon, we come to see him not as the bully who commonly smeared political opponents and ordered the Christmas bombing of North Vietnam but as a lap dog owned by calculating businessmen who threw him bones.
Singled out for excoriation in his half-mad reverie are “the really big guys” of the Committee of 100, the group of Southern California money men who first selected him to run for Congress in 1945. “My life was over after Bohemian Grove,” he says pitifully, referring to the exclusive retreat where he is supposed to have sold his soul for a ticket to Washington.
The movie’s unmistakable message is that Nixon, for all his observable faults, was only a hired hand on the big GOP ranch. The real politics of America are controlled by “second-generation mobsters and their lawyers and the P.R. guys,” he tells us.
Nixon’s secret honor is that, through the convenience of Watergate, he chose to take a fall for these diabolical men rather than expose such information as would undo the nation.
There may be something to this, but Secret Honor doesn’t attempt to sort it out with any precision. Though the film touches down on points of fact (like Nixon’s jealousy of Kissinger, the abuse he took from Ike, his poolside happiness with Bebe Rebozo), it chooses to exploit Nixon as a fictional character, heading toward a generalized truth about the man and his role in in a poisoned system.
His allusions to “the mob,” the Southeast Asia heroin trade and the CIA sound provocative but go unexamined. Drama rules over history, although it could be argued that this is as close to “history” as the conventional chronicles of politicians that so often hide as much as they disclose.
Perhaps more troubling is the sentiment the script works up for the only pardoned president, fitting him for a crown as a tragicomic hero. As a theatrical achievement, the humanizing of Nixon is a tribute to the skill of Hall, Freed, Stone and Altman. But the thought persists that their portrait remains only half-lit – unless we want to believe that Nixon was finally more victim than victimizer.
Still, even in the half-light of improvised history, Secret Honor is both serious and entertaining. Hall manages to be funny without resorting to caricature. There are moments, as when Nixon talks to the oil paintings of other presidents or hurls a Kissinger tract on foreign policy contemptuously across the room, when we imagine we are seeing something close to the real thing.
Altman has judiciously trimmed the original script and given the piece a tighter focus than it had on the stage. An ominous score by George Burt creates additional suspense, and the camera provides some new images by closing in on family photos and the presidential portraits.
To Nixon’s regal office has been added a bank of security TV monitors: the man who lived so much of his public life on television is seen occasionally watching his own image flickering in black and white fuzz.
Wisely, Altman has not tampered noticeably with Hall’s original stage interpretation, which remains an eerie revelation of unstopped rancor and sputtering incoherence. It’s the sort of performance that makes one wonder how long an actor might need to recover from it.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1984