The anxious pacing and ramblings of Richard Nixon is something that, inevitably, would make for an effective film. Just to see the former President shuffle around, yelling obscenities and slightly detracting from his accomplishments, good or bad, during his time in office, would be a tremendous sight to behold. The closest we’ll get is the Robert Altman directed Secret Honor, a one-man show starring Philip Baker Hall as the former Republican President. It’s a fascinating, solo drama, one that somehow comes through unscathed by the terrors Nixon created, from Watergate to Vietnam, these topics crop up from time to time, bolstering the caricature with such horrific brilliance.
Nixon shouts around his study, stomping, pointing every now and then as if speaking to an audience that simply isn’t present. Hall’s performance is stunning, the beauty of a monologue is brought into the spotlight with all its theatrical beauty. We’re presented a man haunted by his actions or inactions, he doesn’t look to make peace with history, but to smash it in two. Raging, aggravated by the memories he has of his political success, Nixon storms around his office with conviction and assertiveness, regaling the audience with the shortcomings of himself and those around him. Jealousy and hatred spew from his mouth, nonsensical ramblings that turn Nixon’s expression of pain into a confused pride, as if his innate, straggling monologue is genius. It shows a man who has snapped completely, and it works with vivid excellence.
The main issue I have though, is something I struggle with in all the Altman films I’ve seen thus far. Here, it doesn’t provide as many issues as I had expected, but the direction doesn’t have all that much it can do. Altman is following a man around, ranting and raving, the clear focus being on the monologue Hall delivers with such compassion and vivacious energy. There’s no real room for anything else, but Altman tries to deliver a handful of suave movements, little flicks of the camera that may add that little something extra to the scene. Filming the televisions in the office, perching on and around his desk, Altman’s direction isn’t bad, but it does feel aimless at times, not quite gaining the attention he desires thanks to a phenomenal performance from Hall. Some of the musical cues, especially towards the end, really steal away from the atmosphere too. It’s already tense enough, so adding an orchestral cacophony of strings makes for an artificial layer that detracts from the already palpable fear on display.
A tightly tuned script presented as if they were uncoordinated ramblings, Secret Honor is a phenomenal example of how the one-room, one-character drama can charm, coerce and convince its audience of whatever it pleases. Hall’s performance is the glue that holds this film together, a marvellous performer at the best of times, he gives one of his greatest roles to date. Alongside Altman, the pair make a delightfully tight, tense picture that manages to hold itself together with surprising severity and seriousness.