The tagline for Robert Altman’s “Secret Honor” advises that “Anyone Can Be President.” The anyone in this case is Richard M. Nixon (Philip Baker Hall), who, judging from this one man film, based on a one man play, suggests that not only can a common crook be President but so can a vain, venomous, terrifying drunkard. Indeed, Altman locks us in a room with the 37th President, played by Philip Baker Hall less an a Dan Hedaya-ish impersonation than an inhabitation of a ferociously tormented soul, and then will not let us out, as if imagining the ex-President’s last days in his own self-imposed bunker, where the camerawork, even from the beginning where it wanders the fairly elaborate study rather than pulling back, refuses to give us a full sense of the room’s scope, or even if it’s night or day, though it certainly feels like night, at least for Nixon given the first shot of a grandfather clock as the bell tolls for our lone character about to go mad.
This Nixon, though he is explicitly advised as being a fictional version of a real person in an opening title card, sure seems like the guy we’ve heard about as he sits down at his desk in his wood paneled office with portraits of Presidents surrounding him and fiddles with a tape recorder that he initially struggles to make work, a tape recorder through which he apparently plans to try out some sort of impassioned plea for his right to be pardoned in the aftermath of his resignation. Throughout he addresses the “judge”, seemingly working as his own defense, and whether this is a trial run, some sort of tape he plans to send to who knows who, or something else, it doesn’t really matter. It might be a suicide note. After all, one shot ominously lingers on a revolver and, you know, Chekov’s Gun and all that, though never presume someone like Altman will adhere to those sorts of rigid rules.
Whoever he think he is speaking to, Nixon’s real nemesis here seems to be the Record and setting it straight, leaving him determined to get a few things off his chest. Or perhaps I should say, to get everything off his chest. The near 90 minute oration that follows veers wildly from the political to the personal and back again, a virtual life history in which Nixon recounts a childhood in which he seemed to be squarely under the thumb of his mother, who he loves and cannot stand, and which ties back to an ordinary upbringing which he seems convinced was the true genesis of his undoing, marking him an anti-elite to Kennedy and Eisenhower and all the rest, even the Founding Fathers, snotty English shits, and reproaching the electorate that kept putting him in office and the shadowy deep state to which he had no choice but to acquiesce even as they sought at every turn to undermine him. If he occasionally, briefly, gets introspective and flirts with pointing the thumb, he quickly reverts and wags his finger, screaming vitriol so that by movie’s end his forehead, face and probably bathrobe are adorned in sweat.
The performance by Hall achieves a unique sort of dichotomy. On one hand, for a part that Hall also played theatrically, suggesting an extremely lived in role, where the rantings and ravings and accompanying physical motions might play rehearsed, everything still comes across spontaneous. Hall evinces a kind of rageful absent-mindedness, where one memory suddenly triggers another, and where every time he comes into physical contact with something, whether a piano or a book, he momentarily snaps out of his furious paranoid delusions for a momentary peace before inevitably thinking of something else and going right back down the rabbit hole. At the same time, that absent-mindedness also elicits the sensation of familiarity, like a senile old man rehashing old arguments, and you can imagine that is why he has placed all these Presidential paintings in his home study, to continue these same conversations with silent portraits that he had from January 20, 1969 – August 9, 1974.
Even if some the conspiracy theories peddled by this Nixon come across pretty darn deranged there nevertheless emerges the sensation of myriad forces beyond a President’s control, as well as the inherent exhausting impossibilities of the executive position itself, destined to run you ragged if your mental fortitude is not fine-tuned. If some Presidents are perhaps more equipped to handle the untoward places the office takes you, others, as “Secret Honor” scarily uggests, are decidedly not.