I am slowly leaning towards making Robert Altman one of my favorite directors of the 20th century, partly for his hip cool films of the seventies, but more so for his scathing and astute political dramas of the eighties. Secret Honor is one such political drama in its combination of minimalist filmmaking and grandiose theatrical performance. It is how one should study a political figure, in a detailed manner that shows both his flaws and redeeming qualities simultaneously and without pause. Furthermore, in the manner that Altman films Secret Honor it becomes a very personal experience between the character of Richard Nixon and the viewer. Although Nixon claims to be recording his own memoirs, the film is much more of a historical figure being recreated to defend himself to viewers and given its intimate setting, the viewer has little choice but to listen. I would jump immediately to calling this a piece of cinema verite, but the excessive ways of Nixon make the film a piece of absurdist cinema that makes Josh Brolin's performance in W seem stoic. I know that better political films exist, but I am not so sure that a more honest one has ever been filmed.
The film is unusual that it involves a single character from beginning to end and that is the aging Richard Nixon, played virulently by Phillip Baker Hall. At the point viewers are introduced, Nixon has locked himself into his study and has began recording his memoirs, which are half childhood nostalgia and half defending himself to an unseen jury. He is recording his memoirs both aurally with a tape recorder and visually with multiple close circuited cameras. With this setup, a few bottles of whiskey and a gun Nixon recants everything relating to his controversial life. These discussions include recalling a tumultuous relationship with his mother and his loathing of both Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Kissinger. He also speaks condescendingly of John F. Kennedy and his inabilities politically, drawing some rather prophetic comparisons to the Bush dynasty. However, every time he begins to become enraged and his monologues become ramblings filled with expletives and mumbling curses. He even reads from his own memoirs in a moment of brilliant metacinema. Fortunately for Nixon, anytime he rambles to far he is quickly able to ask that his transcriber remove said portions. While switching between a devious politician and a self-loathing simpleton Nixon goes between disregarding Watergate to accidentally implicating himself for his crimes. Perhaps the only constant within the entire monologue is the influence of the conspiracy group known as both The Bohemian Grove and The Committee of 100. He claims that this group of old white men with power used him to assure democracy in Asia, which would also garner them control over the heroin trade. Nixon then goes to kill himself only to stop and remind viewers that he is only a puppet of a larger scam and that to implicate him is to implicate the entire system and if that is what society plans to do, then as Nixon sees it they are worthy of no respect and his repeated expletives are followed brilliant by a static filled scream while a crowd chants four more years.
There are a slew of reasons why I find this to be an incredibly honest political film. First and foremost, Altman is politically detached from his filmic visions. Whether it be Tanner '88 or Nashville, Altman realizes the illogical nature of the entire process regardless of party politics. Compare this to say Oliver Stone whose films are clearly liberal leaning, or the conservatively inclined Forrest Gump. While all the aforementioned films and filmmakers are excellent, I find only Altman's films to deliver an all-encompassing vision of the political world in which he exists. Altman could have made Secret Honor a film that defended Nixon or outright attacked him, but it actually does both and ultimately leaves viewers to decide their thoughts on the outcome. It also reminds viewers about the very real effects politics have on the individual. Nixon is a man destroyed in this film, he has resorted to heavy amounts of alcohol and complete secrecy, because one mistake completely ruined his life. The Nixon we are shown is so preoccupied with revealing his innocence that he finds himself rewording his own statements to appear politically correct or detached from his unfortunate past. It is made apparent that nobody will see or hear these ramblings, yet his paranoia is so far gone that he honestly believes that the pictures in his office are watching him. From the images, Altman provides us we are shown a man who simply wanted to join politics to be like Abraham Lincoln, yet a politician like Lincoln could never occur with a camera constantly watching. Even in defending himself the camera's are on Nixon and it is not until they go awry that he can once again gain support. It is incredibly brilliant considering that Nixon was arguably the first victim of a media entrenched political world.
This is one of the hidden gems of The Criterion Collection. It is a rather unusual viewing experience as it is a narrative with one actor and not a single other is given a voice of contradiction. I would strongly suggest grabbing a copy if you love political cinema or anything unconventional.