Secret Honor (Robert Altman, 1984)

Well, after a track record of nine excellent films, I was bound to come across a disappointment from Altman. Secret Honor functions primarily as a one-man play (it was, unsurprisingly, adapted from the stage), with the talented Philip Baker Hall assuming the role of Richard M. Nixon. The film takes place in his study, as Nixon recounts his life in recorded memoirs. Portraits of former presidents and his mother occupy his room, as his mental health progressively disintegrates.

My biggest problem with the film is not knowing what to make of Hall’s performance. The scenery is inhaled, thrown up, and chewed over again, as Hall overacts his way throughout the entire picture. He outlandishly vocalizes one idea while beginning a new one, never completing a thought. It’s effective in portraying Nixon as an unstable, border-line insane individual, though I can’t say that had to be the intended effect. The formal elements of Secret Honor – the foggy lens, the abrupt zooms, etc – are typical Altman. But the fact that this is so driven by one character makes me uneasy to accept this as an Altman film at all though – there’s no lingering sense of community here.

Altman does shed light on the paranoia and overriding pressure that overcame Nixon – his commitment to his mother and desire to do right are noble traits that were unfortunately misinterpreted by the public. Nonetheless, the film simply lasts for too long and becomes repetitive. Hall’s performance is an anomaly though, and worth a look.