I have no idea where to start with Secret Honor, so I’ll start with the Wikipedia plot synopsis…
“A disgraced Richard Nixon is restlessly pacing in the study at his New Jersey home, in the late 1970s. Armed with a loaded revolver, a bottle of Scotch whisky and a running tape recorder, while surrounded by closed circuit television cameras, he spends the next 90 minutes recalling, with rage, suspicion, sadness and disappointment, his controversial life and career in a long monologue”.
Directed by Robert Altman, this is a little bit a departure from his higher profile movies like M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park and Short Cuts. A little bit of a departure in the way that those films all boasted ensemble casts of sometimes more than a dozen main characters, while Secret Honor has just one. That’s it. For the entire movie, there is only one single character on screen, Richard Nixon, played by Philip Baker Hall.
A disclaimer in the opening credits goes to great lengths to make sure you know what you’re about to watch is not a true story, or even based on fact. It is described as a “A Political Myth”, an imagining of what might have been going through Nixon’s head as he reflected back on his life and career.
Maybe I’m ignorant to the intricacies of Nixon’s life and political career, or maybe this move has simply lost a little something as the world moves further and further away from the years of its subject, but there were a few times when I had absolutely no idea what Nixon was talking / ranting about. I know the broad strokes of his rivalry with the Kennedy clan, I know the basic story of Watergate, I knew about the giant chip on his shoulder when it came to people he saw as rich and privileged. But a lot of his references, grievances and obsessions went right over my head. Again, I’m not sure if that’s because it all happened more than a decade before I was born and Nixon’s greatest hits have become lesser known pop culture general knowledge, or if I’m just stupid.
Philip Baker Hall is pretty fantastic. His growing manic mannerisms, fuelled by a perpetually refilled glass of scotch and escalating bitterness, are at different times sad, hilarious, frightening ad tragic. The only problem with Hall though, is that I think as long as I live, I’ll always see him as Lt. Bookman, the no bullshit library cop from Seinfeld who tracks down Jerry for a book he borrowed decades ago and never returned.
I think I can safely say that Secret Honor is like nothing else you’ve seen recently, if ever. A 90 minute monologue with one character and nothing to interact with but a tape recorder. I’m sure if you have even the slightest interest in Nixon, you would find this riveting. Even if you’ve never heard of him or just don’t care, Secret Honor is worth seeing just as a curiosity of film making.