Paranoia, the Destroyer
Phillip Baker Hall's makes a career performance as Richard Nixon, rambling on in justifying his actions, his presidency, and his life. The DVD packaging calls it a "tour-de-force", and it's hard to disagree.
Post-resignation - one would imagine this to be a night not too far from when it was filmed in 1984 - we find Nixon, getting drunk and trying to dictate a defense for himself in the court of popular opinion, rambling on with more tangents than anything else. The strange thing is that the increasing incoherency of his argument is what makes most clear his character. To call Secret Honor a character study is about the same as saying water is wet.
Now, as a political film, and one where we are strongly led to question its central character, the question comes up as to how unbiased the film is. Certainly, Robert Altman's leanings are well known, and Nixon's fall resulted in perhaps the greatest swing of popularity in a national figure ever. Nixon comes off as unflattering, for sure, but there is really no room for any political stance here. It's all about desperation and self-justification, and any attempt to tacked-on posturing would have simply felt wrong.
There's a kind of sympathy that built for me through the piece, which I'm not sure it would be there for everyone. I couldn't help but feel that here is a man, whose best talents led him down possibly the worst possible path for him personally. For what it's worth, I'm more familiar with his time as a senator, when he was best known for his pursuit of communists in goverment. While McCarthy's efforts grew increasingly into self-promotion Nixon was at least sincere, and learned to distance himself from McCarthy. I'm not trying to write an apologetic here - especially one so obviously difficult - but good-intentions-gone-awry is basis enough to consider Nixon in this film.
It's fairly clear this is Robert Altman early on, from his fascination with objects, the way he lingers on something even as action and dialogue continue elsewhere. The use of security monitors was a brilliant touch as well. Watching one person ramble for ninety minutes is hard enough, without finding something else to look at.
Even at ninety minutes, some people will wonder if it can be shorter. The fact is, it could have been longer. In its origins as a one-man play, Secret Honor had seen more than an hour of additional material in it. Would more or less have helped? Mainly, the film would just have been... longer or shorter. You could cut enough tangential passages to make the film under an hour, or add more. There's not so much a plot as a series of ups and downs, and while we build to a smart and satisfying conclusion, the rest of the material works primarily by being simply unrelated to where we're headed. I don't think I'd argue with a single inclusion or exclusion, but probably many other arrangements of the material would have worked as well.
Overall, Secret Honor is a fascinating experiment in what film can be. Certainly, it won't be for everyone's tastes, but what an opportunity to challenge your aesthetics?
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