A completely overlooked 1984 Robert Altman film, with an Oscar-caliber performance by Philip Baker Hall, is the perfect accompaniment to events transpiring in the U.S. on this Election Day. Altman may have made more bad films than any other great director, but Secret Honor, which depicts the imaginary last hours of a distraught, embittered Richard M. Nixon, is not one of them. It is a powerful reminder of what’s at stake in 2019 and one of Altman’s unheralded best.
In November 1972, Richard M. Nixon was elected to a second term as U.S. President by one of the largest margins in American history. That Election Day victory margin put into stark contrast the inexplicable paranoia that, six months earlier, had prompted Nixon to approve a two-bit burglary of his hapless opponent’s headquarters. That bungled burglary led, less than two years after that landslide victory, to the resignation of a defeated, mentally imbalanced Nixon who then scuttled off to an undisclosed location to lick his wounds before his permanent exile in his San Clemente bunker.
Robert Altman’s film, Secret Honor—based on a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone—imagines Nixon in the first weeks after his resignation. He is alone in his study, its walls covered in mementos of his career, as well as portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and, yikes, Henry Kissinger (to which he addresses one of the greatest string of expletives in film history, ending with the perfect description of the war criminal—“whore master”).
At the time that Altman made this film, he was himself exiled, driven out of Hollywood for his failure to make money.
Nixon is sequestered here ostensibly to dictate his memoirs into a large tape recorder that he can’t properly operate (the first ten minutes of the film are taken up with his expletive-filled attempt to get the goddamn thing to work). More technology surrounds and baffles him, in the form of numerous surveillance cameras that reveal hallways, entrance foyers and stairwells of the bleak and spartan mansion inside which he is hiding like a giant spider in the middle of a web of haunted memories. The surveillance cameras offer the only other signs of life—or possibility of life outside that suffocating study—on the set.
Philip Baker Hall does not physically resemble Nixon—his hair is too light, he has no five o’clock shadow, etc.—but he inhabits Nixon in the same way that Daniel Day-Lewis inhabited Honest Abe in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012). After a few minutes in their company you no longer think of them as actors named Hall and Lewis; they ARE Richard Nixon and Abraham Lincoln.
In Secret Honor, Altman and Hall—and the playwrights—make Nixon out as a victim of historic forces beyond his control. Yes, he committed criminal and punishable acts, but not just the penny ante ones of Watergate. That botched burglary, Secret Honor suggests, was just a smokescreen behind which the real crimes of treason, corruption and sedition could be hidden—making the Constitution’s yardstick of “high crimes and misdemeanors” seem like Little League action in comparison.
Nixon, who grew up in a Quaker household that had very little to offer financially or intellectually, wanted to be Abraham Lincoln (a recurring refrain in the script) but the puppet masters who put him into power—the fat cats and power brokers running around nude in the woods at Bohemian Grove—had other plans for him. He was their fall guy for every conspiracy theory ever hatched involving the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Illuminati, the New World Order, etc. Nixon was forced to fall on a sword called Watergate to protect the power-mad swine who staged his political career. It’s a Shakespeare tragedy cross-pollinated with a Mamet comedy, the f- and s- bombs flying like artillery shells and the tragic hero, in the end, crawling around on all fours, begging for forgiveness from his long dead mother.
At the time that Altman made this film, he was himself exiled, driven out of Hollywood for his failure to make money. He was, in 1983-84, living in Ann Arbor and teaching filmmaking at the University of Michigan. Secret Honor was filmed at the university with his students serving as his crew. It is clear that a piece of Robert Altman resided in Philip Baker Hall’s portrayal of Nixon. Though the film could be seen as satire, the two of these major talents turned it into something else entirely. As the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Wilmington noted, “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.”
Among the online chatter about the current criminally-inclined occupant of the White House is a popular nickname for him: “Fat Nixon.” The current scandals involving Russia and Ukraine (and emoluments and treason and payoffs to porn actresses and compulsive lying) are also often compared to Watergate. And yet, examined even cursorily, the Watergate break-in would be a single incident on a meaningless weekday for the current occupant, forgotten totally the next day in the wake of something even more outrageous.
Still, the comparisons between Nixon and the current occupant are as undeniable as they are accurate. The paranoia, stonewalling, arrogance, profanity, sycophantic legal advisers, and so on. The difference then (in 1974) is that America had a functioning Senate chamber and, at the end of the line, an untainted Supreme Court.
Nixon once famously said, “I am not a crook” while the current occupant keeps repeating, like a demented mynah bird, “fake news.” Nixon once said, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal,” and the current occupant has boasted “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters.”
For parallels like these, Secret Honor is the perfect film to watch on Election Day 2019.
A good companion film for Secret Honor would be Frost/Nixon (2008), starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost. Again, like Hall, Langella does not physically resemble Nixon but he has his voice and mannerisms down pat. The eeriest part of both of these films is that, in the end, the viewer finds himself feeling some sympathy for Richard Nixon.
It is safe to say the same will never be said, in any future film depiction, of the current occupant of the White House.
And, lest we forget, another Election Day classic is Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), which is set on the eve of Nixon’s landslide victory. The film was intended, by Warren Beatty, who produced, co-wrote and starred in it, to show “when the American people came face to face with who they really were.”
While we are on the subject of old, hard-to-find films, our friends at Best Video Film & Cultural Center, in Hamden, Connecticut, could use some help. BVFCC is the very last (but always, in its nearly 35 years of existence, the best) of the independent venues for classic, foreign, independent, cult, contemporary and children’s titles. It is now a nonprofit cultural center, with film-related events and classes, live music performances, and screenings. There’s no place like it anywhere else and PKM is fortunate to have Best right in our own backyard. It is, in fact, here that my son, Paul, discovered Secret Honor and told me about it.
Best Video Film & Cultural Center is holding their Fall Open House Extravaganza on Saturday, Nov. 16. Consider donating to keep the BVFCC mission alive. Or just show up, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., at 1842 Whitney Avenue, Hamden, CT.