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.