Saturday, February 5, 2011

Secret Honor (1984)

Directed by Robert Altman.
Starring Philip Baker Hall.
In a Nutshell: A fictionalized portrayal of former President Nixon’s reflections.

What sort of truth can be ascertained within fiction? Particularly when it so brazenly skews well-documented fact? Secret Honor attempts this, showcasing a memoir, drunkenly dictated by Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall). The account is near-complete fabrication, but portrayed as if it could have happened. Nixon himself is not quite the man we know, more of an expansion on his public persona. Though that would in fact make him a more familiar figure than the “real” Nixon; self-righteous, bitter and willing to stand before the American people their victim. Hall treads that line between embodiment and impersonation in a similar vein, running the emotional gamut to near apoplexy (not a criticism per se, but a clear example of how jarring stage acting can sometimes feel on film). He veers from emotional high to low, dotted with sputtering digressions and unconscious profanity, expertly exposing Nixon’s wounds underneath.

Ever the dependable “actor’s director,” Altman observes with little fanfare. Though he does restate one noticeable motif; Nixon’s image in a television monitor; a parallel to his own self-created image, now washed out and trapped in recorded history. This image created by Altman, Hall and writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (the latter a former lawyer for the Justice Department and the National Security Agency) is able balance both sides of the political spectrum. Nixon is still the left’s adversary, but abused by his friends on the right into a man willing to extend the Vietnam War for drug money. This Nixon can only absolve himself by his own hand and the movie presents an intriguing invention to the Watergate scandal. Without aligning with any real history, it does well to exploring the shady moral waters that run our country, and what sort of man it produced. Or could have produced and probably did anyhow.

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