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Secret Honor

Philip Baker Hall , Robert Altman    Unrated   DVD

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Sequestered in his home, a disgraced President Richard Millhouse Nixon arms himself with a bottle of Scotch and a gun to record memoirs that no one will hear. Surrounded by the silent portraits of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Kissinger, and his mother, Nixon resurrects his past in a passionate attempt to reconcile his failed political career. Based on the original play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, and starring Philip Baker Hall in a tour de force solo performance, Robert Altman's Secret Honor is a searing interrogation of the Nixon mystique and an audacious depiction of unchecked paranoia. Format: Multiple Formats, Closed-captioned, Color, Full Screen, NTSC Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono) Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only) Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Number of discs: 1 Rated: Unrated Studio: Criterion DVD Release Date: October 19, 2004 Run Time: 90 minutes

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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  22 reviews
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterful one-man performance Sept. 27 2002
By Todd Altman - Published on Amazon.com
I saw this movie on cable the year it came out. Although I was only 16 at the time and knew almost nothing about Watergate, I was absolutely awe-struck by Philip Baker Hall's riveting portrayal of Richard Nixon. There are no car chases, no love scenes, no special effects -- just one actor relying solely on raw acting talent to tell a complicated story in a way that is so powerful, so multilayered, that it holds your attention for over an hour.
Now that I have a fuller knowledge and understanding of political scandals in general, I'm equally impressed with the alarming depth and accuracy of this movie's "fictional" script writing. The writers obviously had inside knowledge of the plutocratic string pulling that goes on in Washington.
It is puzzling, to say the least, why a movie this good is so hard to come by, especially when one considers how well-known the director is.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I am the American dream. July 16 2005
By Steven Hellerstedt - Published on Amazon.com
SECRET HONOR invites us to spend an intimate evening alone with the only man ever to resign the presidency, Richard Nixon. The Criterion disk contains a bunch of extras, including an hour and twenty-some minutes worth of Nixon, the real Nixon, on videotape and kinescope. It surveys a number of his speeches, beginning with the Fund Crisis (`Checkers') Speech in 1952 and ending with his August 9, 1974 Farewell Speech to the White House Staff. Also included is a newspaper managing editors' question and answer session, from 1973, in which Nixon first told us "I am not a crook." If you're new to Nixon, or need a refresher course in Nixonia, I strongly suggest you watch these before watching the movie. A few politicians are, maybe once in their career, forced to make an embarrassing speech confessing a personal weakness or transgression. Nixon seemed to have made a career out of such speeches, and this tip-of-the-iceberg special feature gives a good sense of Nixon's personal debasement style. SECRET HONOR takes place sometime in the late 1970s, and is an intimate, post-resignation evening spent with Richard Nixon. Philip Baker Hall put his star on the map with his interpretation of the ex-president. He begins the evening with a glass of sherry, which isn't quite Nixon's style. Scotch, and then more scotch, puts slick in his lick and leads to a fascinating, free-ranging, ninety-minute rant against the world.

One man shows can be bad enough on stage. When made into movies even the good ones can be nearly unbearable. SECRET HONOR avoids all the pitfalls. For one thing, Robert Altman is a canny enough director to devise ways to keep us visually interested in what's going on. During the 20-some minute special feature interview with Philip Baker Hall we see photographs of Altman's unique camera contraption - a 16-mm camera mounted on some sort of flying jib that more or less becomes Hall's dance partner. It provides the cameraman with great mobility and flexibility. Along with the fluid camera the script is a great help, as well. Let's face it - the big question in one man shows is "What is he doing there?" Usually the Great Person is decked out in period regalia, maintains eye contact with the audience for the duration, and spends most of his time recounting Great Event after Great Event. As Altman says on his commentary track, it's all a little too precious. SECRET HONOR avoids the one-man trap by having Nixon, appropriately enough, speaking into a tape recorder, explaining himself to someone. We're never sure who that someone is, perhaps his mother, perhaps with all the `Your Honors' and `my clients' in the monologue, it's a judge of some type. It seems some post-pardon defense is, as they say, being strategized. Either way it's an inspired approach.

I think some people still have strong feelings, positive or negative, about Richard Nixon. Nixon haters and Nixon lovers might have some problems with this movie because Nixon comes across as both fatally flawed yet somewhat tragic. Hall, Altman and the script combine to make this a fascinating 90-minutes for anyone with memories of or an interest in the Nixon Presidency. Strongest recommendation for this terrific movie.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An American Archetype? March 4 2005
By Michael E. Kreca - Published on Amazon.com
I just finished viewing this incredible, astoundingly intense motion picture for the very first time after hearing about it for 20 years. Philip Baker Hall (who played the character of "Library Cop" on "Seinfeld") essays the part of Richard Nixon in an unforgettable one actor performance. The film had been shot at the Univ. of Michigan, the crew composed largely of UM students, while director Robert Altman was doing a short hitch as filmmaker-in-residence there and has the interesting, "you are there" immediacy and intimacy of a filmed stage play or TV show.

The set is a large, wood paneled office, apparently in Nixon's home in San Clemente, a few months after his August 1974 resignation from the Presidency. An angry and restless Nixon nervously paces back and forth with a glass of scotch whiskey in one hand and a loaded revolver lying on his desk, yelling angrily into a running tape recorder about the details of his childhood, adult life, controversial political career, his deep and unhealed resentments and miseries, repeatedly hurling a stream of caustic invective at portraits of Dwight Eisenhower, Jack Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, reserving most of his vitriolic (yet fascinating and perceptive) bile for Kissinger, rarely (typically) blaming himself for his own misdeeds, all the while intermittently and nervously scanning a battery of CCTV monitors whose cameras are already observing and recording him. Nixon on several occasions mentions the mysterious "Bohemian Grove" located in rural northern California (a subject of much "conspiracy theorizing" in recent years.)

This film is a must see, if for no other reason to experience Hall's stunning and overwhelming performance as the desperate and doomed Tricky Dick, to appreciate Altman's unique cinematographic and directorial style and to vividly grasp the nature of an bafflingly influential human and cultural "focal point" in recent American history. Additionally, whether one is or isn't a Nixon hater, after finishing this film one may gain some understanding of and deeper insight into if not grudging respect or sympathy for this undoubtedly gifted and highly skilled yet incredibly tormented and angry man whose character, behavior and personality was a rare and corrosive but powerful and unforgettable blend of all of the tragic protagonists that had ever emerged from the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevski and Conrad to Fitzgerald, Beckett and Pirandello.

Hall's Richard Nixon, like Marlon Brando's character of Col. Walter Kurtz in 1979's "Apocalypse Now" is a poignant and intense collage of what some might term a classic "American archetype;" a brooding and obsessive "failed overachiever" whose single-minded drive to reach that nebulous yet seductive goal of "being somebody" had been completely and irreparably derailed at the final bend by the same volatile forces that had also driven him relentlessly and vindictively toward that goal, leaving all sorts of tragic wreckage, human and political, in his wake. Was Nixon good, bad, both, neither or something else altogether? And finally, from the opening scene of "Secret Honor," a more specific and pointed question arises, one that persists all the way to the film's final two words: Is there a little bit of Dick Nixon in all of us?
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Secret Honor" - best kept secret in Nixon films! April 21 2002
By xxgrendelxx - Published on Amazon.com
Philip Baker Hall's performance as Richard Milhous Nixon rates as my favorite among Nixon films. His portrayal of Nixon covers all the bases, from quiet obedience to his beloved mother to the snarling, foul mouthed paranoiac we've all come to love (or hate). The film is riveting as Hall's Nixon drags the audience deeper and deeper into his harsh world view and finally brings us to the very edge of his despair. The end will have you laughing, cringing or both. Brings into sharp relief the concept that we are all heroes in our own mind, and it will make you wonder what sort of spirit dwells in the leaders we currently elect if a man this twisted with hate, self loathing and paranoia could be elected president twice. Just an amazing film. Even if you don't subscribe to Hall's portrayal as reality you can't deny that this a talented and powerful performance. This film should be a must have among the "conspiracy" minded.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Extraordinary Performance By Philip Baker Hall Aug. 20 2005
By C. O. DeRiemer - Published on Amazon.com
"Nixon as Hamlet, Nixon as Lear, Nixon as Blanche DuBois..." says Michael Wilmington in his Criterion liner notes. It's 1983 and Richard Nixon, late at night, is in the study of his home preparing to record his version of the events in his life. He's managed after some difficulty to connect the tape recorder. He has a tumbler of scotch at hand. As he talks he's at times playing defense attorney for Richard Nixon before an imaginary judge, at other times he's Richard Nixon explaining himself and his actions.

"I wanted to be a winner because I was a loser. That's right. I'd been a failure every night of my life and that is my secret...I was a dogcatcher...yeah...I was...I am...and a...mmm...used car salesman, too...sure, sure, fine...and a siding and a shingle man and...because I knew that today the dogcatcher is king!...and all those crooks and those shysters and those mobsters and those lobsters...I mean lobbyists...and the well fed...all the welfare bums and tramps in this country...that is your palace guard. Let 'em suck on that for a while!"

As the night goes by and as the scotch goes down, Nixon rails against almost everyone except his mother; against Eisenhower and Kissinger, against his brothers and his fate, against college slights and job interview turndowns, against east coast lawyers and slick big businessmen, against decisions he had to make to satisfy the secret deals he made with the Committee of 100 and the Bohemian Club crowd. Deep into the scotch he cries of the public humiliation he accepted to save his secret honor against the nightmare plans of the Committee and their smooth, wealthy, powerful members. "My client is guilty of one thing only," he cries to the imaginary judge, "of being Richard Milhous Nixon."

This 90-minute play, restaged to become a highly fluid and effective film by Robert Altman, is an absolute tour de force of solo acting by Philip Baker Hall. He doesn't much look or sound like Nixon, but his performance is stunning. His Nixon ranges seamlessly from resentment to suppressed rage to self pity to almost strangled inarticulateness. He can relish his victories with a cynical laugh and almost sob with the slights he knows he has received from others. The four-letter words are pungent, startling and frequent. Hall is just extraordinary.

What are we left with? I think that anyone who admires fine acting, psychology, politics and cynicism would want this film. I doubt if anyone who hates Nixon or loves Nixon would be satisfied. I found myself feeling a little uncomfortably sympathetic.

The Criterion DVD features an informative insert and several extras, including commentary by Altman and co-writer Donald Freed, as well as an on-camera and interesting interview with Hall. The DVD picture looks fine.

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