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Secret Honor: The Criterion Collection

Robert Altman was considered one of the giants of the "Second Golden Age of Cinema," pleasing both audiences and critics with distinctive epics like M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and Nashville (1975). But Altman's style and interests remained quirkier than those of his younger, hipper peers, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola, and when the director's output became increasingly offbeat as the decade wound to an end, his continued prestige was largely running on the fumes of his reputation. He began the '80s with the baffling, big-budget bomb Popeye (1980), asphyxiating his mystique. After that, Altman slipped underground and focused on off-Broadway theater. Although he would eventually film a handful of these productions — Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Streamers (1983), The Laundromat (1985), Fool for Love (1985), Beyond Therapy (1987) — all to various degrees of praise, none did as much to restore Altman's maverick street cred as 1984's Secret Honor. Philip Baker Hall, then essentially unknown, stars in this 90-minute one-man show as former President Richard M. Nixon, depicted by playwright Donald Freed as unleashing a liquor-armed battery of pique and persecutions into his tape recorder a few years following his resignation from office. The disgraced head-of-state indulges in a scattered late-night bitch session, running zig-zag through the narrative of his life, from his humble beginnings and sibling rivalries through the Watergate scandal that drove him prematurely from office. In Freed and Altman's Nixon-world, the maligned politician sees himself as the victim of a massive conspiracy of power controlled by the "Committee of 100," who initially bankrolled Nixon's political ascent, and the sinister, string-pulling, quasi-masonic cabal of "The Bohemian Grove." During his rant, Nixon curses nearly the entire roster of his enemies list, spitting the most venom toward his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, whose placid portrait hangs in Nixon's private office alongside those of former presidents. The "secret honor" Nixon claims for himself was cunningly masked, he feverishly explains, by the "public shame" of the Watergate scandal he personally engineered to escape from the clutch of his powerful overlords — who, he explains, were leading him into acts of treason.

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Secret Honor's most impressive asset is Philip Baker Hall's masterful performance, which is convincing from start to finish, veering violently but seamlessly from stubborn bravado to fragile self-pity. However, Hall is not aided by Freed's script, with its dense and purposely disjointed first half. It's not until the final 45 minutes that the shattered fragments of Nixon's story begin tumbling down with any momentum, and even then, only the last 20 minutes or so are truly engaging as a piece of drama. Altman's skill with the camera is apparent through most of Secret Honor, but was never as effective in his stagy works of the 1980s as it was with his more naturalistic classics a decade earlier. Whereas the camera appeared to linger amongst and eavesdrop on the characters, revealing them documentary-style in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville, Altman's technique in the 1980s sometimes unflatteringly accentuates the already-exaggerated performances of what were originally theatrical pieces. Of course, most of the attention (and praise) for Secret Honor is not so much due to Hall's obvious prowess or Altman's resurgence, but with its boldly unflattering take on a not-very-popular figure from recent American politics. Although a scroll as the film begins explains that Secret Honor is a work of fiction, it also presumes to present basic truths about a man many love to hate. Nixon's paranoia and profane rambling have been well documented by Nixon's own tapes — some of which have just been released in recent years — and it is doubtless that some of the film's most enthusiastic fans simply revel in seeing their most extreme perception of Nixon as a raving, unhinged, pitiable nutbag (he even barks like a dog, at one point) brought to vibrant life for all to see. Whether one concludes that the fantastic conspiracy theory the movie's Nixon pleads in his defense is authentic or simply suggests the depth of his desperate victimization — Hall beautifully leaves this issue unresolved with his sincere yet dubious performance — it's still a Sophie's Choice of motivation, neither of which leaves the character with any surviving credibility. That's a plus for Nixon-hating cinephiles, and it makes for an interesting document of social history, although it also hinders Secret Honor's success as dramatic work of art.

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Criterion presents Secret Honor in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with monaural audio. This disc repackages the special features of the 1992 Criterion Laserdisc, with one addition. There are separate audio commentaries by Altman and Freed, both of whom sort of disingenuously claim an objective approach to their subject despite the mostly condescending and occasionally outright disdainful tenor of their characterizations of Nixon. There also is 81 minutes of terrific news footage from key Nixon moments, including his "Checkers" speech, a 1968 campaign film, a Watergate-focused 1973 Q&A session with the AP Editors Association, his response to a subpoena for Watergate-related tapes, his 1974 resignation speech, and his emotional farewell speech to his staff. Of course, none of these poised public appearances hint at anything like the Nixon presented in Altman's film, so they add great value to the disc as counterweight to the movie's sensationalism. New to this DVD is an engaging 22-minute interview with Hall, during which he reveals both his initial reservations about the project and Secret Honor's role in his recent work with director P.T. Anderson. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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