Philip Baker Hall in 1984's "Secret Honor."

Secret Honor March 31, 2022

DIRECTED BY

Robert Altman

 

STARRING

Philip Baker Hall

 

RATED

NR

RELEASED IN

1984

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 30 Mins.

W

hen you watch Secret Honor (1984), a 90-minute monologue piece from Robert Altman, you’re reminded why the director is beloved for his outstretched humanist epics (1975’s Nashville, 1993’s Short Cuts) of the 1970s and ‘90s and not the great many out-of-left-field projects of his ‘80s. Not because Secret Honor is a bad movie — it’s actually among Altman’s most hypnotic — but because those

epics have a way of making life seem exciting and full of possibility despite their instances of tragedy. Secret Honor, in contrast, is exclusively excruciating for almost all its runtime. 

 

Written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, Secret Honor takes pains to let us know what we’re seeing is purely speculative fiction. Before the film’s first images appear, a few scrolls of text tell us this all is a product of its dramatists’ imagination. Invocations of real-life events and fictionalized others are being used to illuminate the fundamental character of its main figure. 
 

That figure — and he’s the only person we ever meet in the movie — is former president Richard Nixon. He’s cooped up in the office of his New Jersey mansion (built out of a University of Michigan res hall) and played by longtime stage actor Philip Baker Hall, not yet the dependable character actor moviegoers have come to know him as. Hall not particularly looking or sounding like Nixon is part of what works about the movie. It’s less about careful duplication than it is about evincing what its makers think is Nixon’s essence. Having Hall physically or affectationally resembling Nixon too much could in themselves become distractions. 
   

The monologue — a rambling, generally incoherent thing touching on the bulk of Nixon’s biography and his innate tendencies for self-loathing and blame-deflection — is spurred by two things: a turned-on tape recorder suggesting all these words will eventually go into a book of some kind; lots of gulps of whiskey. A quartet of surveillance cameras captures everything, too, giving form to Nixon’s spiraling and in-crisis brain never fully able to focus too long on one thing. The peripheries sidetrack. When static sometimes intrudes, it’s ominous. A gun Nixon pulls from his desk gives everything a feeling of increased danger. You can’t be sure, early on, where his externalized demons may guide him. 
 

You’re almost immediately ready for Secret Honor to be over the moment Hall begins his electrifying orations for no one. They grow so intense a sweat I’m not sure is real or simulated with washcloths for the cameras is worked up. (You want to believe it’s the former: Hall’s work is so disconcertingly immersive that it would only add to the performance’s impressiveness.) But the desire for closing-credit relief doesn’t mean the movie is altogether torturous. It’s more a compulsively watchable movie of deep unpleasantness from which you can’t turn away, not interested in making Nixon sympathetic but instead considering how someone like him may conceive of himself. 
 

That hypnotic factor, of course, largely comes from Hall, who’s said in interviews that at that point in his mostly stagebound career, doing similar pieces wasn’t out of the ordinary for him. He liked the challenge they presented. Hall is a man possessed in Secret Honor; he’s unforgettable in a movie you might never be inclined to revisit. B+