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  • Benjamin May

Secret Honor (1984) Review

Sometime in the late 70's, the 37th President- Richard Nixon- decided to set the record straight. In his study, alone but for a bottle of Scotch and a loaded revolver, he sets the tape deck to record and starts to tell his tale. So begins a fascinating, illuminating and thoroughly candid monologue that explores what Nixon may have been feeling, what he was thinking; and why his presidency and very name became synonymous with scandal.

Robert Altman's 'Secret Honor'- based on the play 'Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon' by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone- seamlessly weaves fact with fiction to create a thoroughly believable and strangely compelling portrait of a man too often in film and television resigned to the realm of caricature and cast in black and white. The real Nixon was a man of immeasurable greys, and Freed and Stone's powerful screenplay lays that fact bare.

It is neither an overly sympathetic work, nor is it a scathing summation of Nixon's legacy. It is balanced, unbiased- in fact, surprisingly so, considering Altman's noted and vocal political leanings. It shows Nixon to be one full of contradictions and divided loyalties, a deeply paranoid man not comfortable with people, but still one who craved attention and demanded respect. He is not the villain most films make him out to be, neither is he a saint. Through their barbed, witty monologues, Freed and Stone show us Nixon's character like few other films have succeeded - or even tried- in doing.

Freed and Stone's writing is remarkable because it is so vitriolic and yet so sympathetic you begin to see Nixon not as some political figurehead or legend, but simply as a man; one of fallibility, doubts and self-interest like us all. Oliver Stone would try to do something similar with his 'Nixon' in 1995, but 'Secret Honor' was much more successful at bringing a complete, well-rounded portrait of the man to life.

Of course, 'Secret Honor' also benefits from having the late, great Philip Baker Hall starring as Nixon, delivering a tour-de-force performance that justifiably jumpstarted his career in film. He showcases the self-pity and ego inherent to Nixon's character in a subtle manner, while also imbuing the man with a sympathetic, humane streak. So perfectly does he capture Nixon's mannerisms, his presence, his vocal eccentricities, that it is as if the real President had possessed Baker Hall for the ninety minutes of the film's runtime.

Ranting and raving into his tape recorder, racing through the study in his red-velvet smoking jacket; at times you feel that you're watching some kind of documentary that the 37th President drunkenly agreed to take part in. Baker Hall's is an intense, incredible piece of acting that is not just the finest Nixon we've ever had on screen, it is one of the greatest performances in any Altman film point blank. That is not even to mention the fact that the film is a one man show, and Baker Hall keeps us glued to the screen the whole time.

Filmed on campus at the University of Michigan, 'Secret Honor' is simply, stylishly shot. Pierre Mignot's cinematography is fluid, unobtrusive work that has room for symbolism and visual metaphor, but is never pretentious. Stephen Altman's production design is texturally rich, though in a minimalist fashion. Nixon's study- the only location in the film- is decorated convincingly, containing the staples one might assume the 37th President would have: a piano, photographs from his career, various CCTV cameras; copious amounts of Chivas Regal. Though adapting plays to film can often be difficult in terms of visuals and staging; Altman's crew on 'Secret Honor' did a masterful job.

'Secret Honor' is a masterpiece of cinema, a sharply written, witty character study of one of the most notorious Presidents in history. It is not a politically biased work, though that doesn't mean it doesn't contain criticism of Nixon's policies and time in office. It is a film that is always believable and never melodramatic- an honest examination of the man's character; and as Nixon himself once said "honesty may not be the best policy, but it is worth trying once in a while." 'Secret Honor' is well worth trying.


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