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Nixon as Hamlet, Nixon as Lear, Nixon as Blanche DuBois, Nixon as Krapp—clutching every last tape to his breast with the wild fury and despair of a man on the precipice . . . Nixon in his study, poring over his past, gazing at his own multiplied monochrome image in a bank of TV monitors . . . Nixon fulminating, raging, screaming at a portrait of the “whoremaster” Kissinger, dictating with somber resignation his own defense against history and disgrace into a tape recorder . . . Nixon drinking, defiant, dissolving into tears, Nixon Agonistes, Nixon bellowing every expletive you could imagine, then sinking to the floor in exhaustion . . . Nixon with the gun to his temple, the final gambol and endgame of the Old Prankster, Tricky Dick in the mirrored halls of memory and conscience.
Robert Altman’s astonishing Secret Honor, perhaps the least seen and appreciated of all the great American films of the 1980s, is a sardonic and terrifying portrait of the American political process gone amuck and of a man, the “Richard Nixon” described above, caught in its contradictions, tortured by its corruption. As much as Altman’s Tanner ’88, it’s a portrait of the triumph of television over politics, image over reality. It’s a funny film, but also harrowing and moving. There is probably no portrait of Richard Nixon in all of literature as genuinely sympathetic as this one—despite the fact that it was created and executed by people who may regard themselves as his mortal enemies.
In the film, Nixon emerges as not quite the comic villain of liberal imagination and not quite the conservative’s tragic hero but as an odd mixture of both. And he is portrayed by the brilliant but then little known actor Philip Baker Hall in a performance of such bravura skill and burning intensity that it all but blows you out of your seat.
Today, of course, we know Hall as one of the busiest, best-regarded character actors in American movies (and TV), a dour-faced specialist in gangsters and government men whose hangdog demeanor and raspy delivery has graced films of all kinds—from Ivan Reitman’s blockbuster Ghostbusters 2 (1989) to Anthony Minghella’s arty thriller The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) to Lars von Trier’s experimental Dogville (2003). He is probably best known for his role as Sydney, the melancholy and fatherly gambler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996) and as TV icon and CBS 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999). But in 1984, Hall’s Nixon was a stunning surprise, an acting masterpiece from a then-obscure TV actor.
Even moviegoers familiar with Hall’s great subsequent work for Anderson and others may be shocked at the sheer power and depth of what he does here. Hall’s Nixon is a man of feeling and brains reduced to howling victim-bawling, sputtering obscenities, tangled up in nonsequiturs, booze, and blues. Trapped in an office that has become his bunker, dictating his defense to a mysterious “Roberto”—whom he constantly admonishes to erase almost everything he’s just recorded—downing whiskeys and babbling distractedly to his mother and an off-screen “judge,” Nixon scrutinizes his past and rails against his persecutors.
If he is sympathetic, it’s partly because of his vulnerability, partly because of Hall, but also because writers Donald Freed (a political dramatist whose works include 1973’s Executive Action) and Arnold M. Stone (a lawyer who worked for the Justice Department and the National Security Agency) place their “Nixon” in a dire conspiratorial view of history—as a paid puppet of the American economic elite (the “Bohemian Grove” crowd), used and abused by his masters. The premise is slightly jaw dropping, a “countermyth,” like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991). Secret Honor speculates that the Watergate scandal was engineered by Nixon, framing himself for lesser crimes to keep investigators from stumbling onto worse ones: treason, massive government corruption, and diversion of funds. That’s the Secret Honor of the title—so convoluted it could only emerge from an utterly amoral system.
Altman made Secret Honor as part of his filmmaking class at the University of Michigan. He used his regular crew—including cinematographer Pierre Mignot, camera operator (and later, for The Player , cinematographer) Jean Lepine, and his longtime art director (and son) Stephen Altman—with Michigan students filling many crew positions. (The ominous score, reminiscent of Leonard Rosenman’s music for the James Dean classics, East of Eden  and Rebel Without a Cause , was by Michigan professor George Burt.) Perhaps only on such a shoestring could you be so audacious in Reagan-era America. Writers irritated at auteurism are quick to point out that Altman, who often tinkers with scripts and likes improvisation, hardly changed this one at all, and that Hall’s performance is virtually identical to the one he gave onstage, under Robert Harders’ direction. (Harders is billed as “associate director” here.)
Is Secret Honor, then, really an Altman film? Of course. Because what we see here is what Altman wants us to see. The way Secret Honor is shot multiplies its meanings: the gliding, curious camera movements roaming over surfaces, the long takes and medium frames that emphasize Hall’s monologue—and, most crucially, the use of four video monitors to create continuous visual counterpoint and a whole ensemble of Nixon’s acting in ghastly unison. Altman is a director of “communities”; here his community is an Empire of One.
Secret Honor is not just a record. It’s an exploration of the play, of Hall’s acting virtuosity, and of Altman’s most diabolical bête noire. In portraying Nixon as a tragicomic puppet, Altman is ultimately commenting on the American political system—seemingly democratic and egalitarian on the surface, mercenary and elitist below, and completely tangled up in show business and TV strategies and imagery.
But Altman isn’t just diving into an imaginary Nixon. He’s exploring himself as well. More than a few critics have pointed up similarities between this Nixon—isolated, cut off, ruminating on past glories, playing with video cameras, manipulating his image—and the “exiled” Altman of 1983, at the recognized low point of his career. Perhaps that’s the film’s darkest, most ruthless irony of all.
Michael Wilmington is a film critic for the Chicago Tribune.