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The Criterion Collection presents
Secret Honor (1984)

"You see, Your Honor, I know that the whole story could never be told during my lifetime, because the nation could not have stood the whole story."
- Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall)

Review By: Robert Edwards   
Published: October 18, 2004

Stars: Philip Baker Hall
Director: Robert Altman

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (very strong language)
Run Time: 01h:30m:28s
Release Date: October 19, 2004
UPC: 037429197929
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+C+B+ B+

DVD Review

Director Robert Altman is probably still best known for 1970's M*A*S*H, which opened an artistically fruitful decade that included such classics as McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Nashville. After 1980's disastrous Popeye, he spent the next few years creating filmed version of stage plays, and one of the best of these is Secret Honor, released in 1984.

Eventual executive producer Robert Bushnell introduced Altman to Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone's one-man play the year before, and Altman was so taken with it that he produced an off-Broadway version. At the time, he was a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, and decided to turn the play into a movie, using primarily students as his crew. The result, trimmed of nearly an hour of the play's original running time, went on to appear on several ten best lists for the year.

Described as a "fictional meditation" in its opening scrawl, Secret Honor consists of a monologue by one Richard Milhous Nixon, set several years after his ignominious resignation over the Watergate affair. In the opening scene, he pours himself a glass of sherry (to be quickly replaced by scotch), fumbles with a tape recorder, and—ominously—takes a gun from a wooden box and lays it on his desk. Once he gets the cantankerous machine to record his voice, he begins dictating a long, passionate defense/apology for Watergate to the unseen "Roberto."

Over the next hour and a half, Nixon explains, rants, remembers his childhood, uses every expletive in the book, gets drunk, talks to his deceased mother, and insults everyone from Kissinger to Washington to Congress, all in the name of justifying his actions in Watergate. He recounts his political history, from his first run for office at the instigation of the mysterious "Committee of 100," his infamous Checkers speech, vice-presidency, eventual triumph as president, and landslide re-election, all apparently controlled and/or manipulated by the Committee. And it's only by using Watergate as an excuse to resign, to use the cover-up itself as a means to cover up something far more insidious, that he can escape his role as the Committee's pawn (thus the "Secret Honor" of the title).

Philip Baker Hall, unknown to movie audiences at the time, gives a magnificent performance (which he describes as "abandoned overplaying") as the complex and self-contradictory Nixon. Certain characteristics of Nixon that are known to be true—his inability to get through a single sentence without swearing, his rambling manner of talking, his anger and paranoia—are all conveyed (seemingly) accurately on the screen, and although Hall's physical resemblance to Nixon is minimal, the viewer quickly accepts him as the embodiment of Tricky Dick. Hall convincingly portrays Nixon's complicated feelings towards his family, a mix of shame at their humble origins, pride at their stoicism when two of his brothers died of tuberculosis, and tenderness toward his mother. Nixon's own occasional self-loathing and more frequent self-aggrandizement, his anger and pain when things are down, and his nose-thumbing joy when he comes out on top, all mix in a stellar performance.

While sitting down in a theater or in front of a television to watch a filmed one-man play may sound less visually interesting than watching paint dry, that's certainly not the case here. Hall's almost continuously in motion, getting himself yet another scotch as he becomes progressively drunker, talking to the presidential portraits that surround him, playing the piano (and singing!), searching for his mother's bible, and manically dashing from one side of the room to the other. Altman's camera not only follows Hall, occasionally pulling back from him in ironic commentary, but picks out objects in the room—Nixon's gun, the above-mentioned portraits, the microphone—and the film is never visually boring. And, in the one addition Altman made to the original play, there's a set of four black and white video monitors on one side of the room, at first showing security camera footage, then multiple copies of Nixon as he switches them all to a camera inside the room, pointed at himself. Altman mixes the footage of Nixon in the room with the blurry, low-resolution video images, adding further visual interest to the film.

As political history, Secret Honor is suspect, even though writer Freed claims in one of the commentary tracks that revelations since Watergate have partially proven what at the time he considered to be fantasy. As a portrait, factual or fictionalized, of one of the most reviled figures in American history, Secret Honor is an engrossing and highly enjoyable film.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Secret Honor was filmed in 16mm, and the full-frame transfer is quite grainy, distractingly so. Colors are merely okay, but black levels are reasonable, and skin tones are fairly accurate.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The mono sound is fine, never strident or harsh, and both the dialogue and George Burt's low-key score come through well.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Robert Altman, co-writer Donald Freed
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with actor Philip Baker Hall
  2. Archival film excerpts from the political career of President Richard M. Nixon
  3. Eight-page printed insert
Extras Review: Two continuous commentaries are included. They're carried over from Criterion's original 1992 laserdisc edition, and thus some of the references to contemporary politics are now dated. Altman's is the more interesting, as he discusses how he became acquainted with the play and turned it into a film. He mostly sticks to a factual commentary about Nixon and Watergate, but also draws some parallels between his theory that politics is theater and his own position as a director. There's more historical information here, as well as analysis of Nixon's character, based partially on Altman's listening to a bootleg copy of the Watergate tapes.

Co-writer Donald Freed doesn't mention his co-writer Arnold M. Stone even once during his commentary track, and in fact describes himself as "the writer." His track is at times interesting, especially when he gives more background information about Nixon's life and the events referenced in the film, but is also a bit too fanciful and high-flying, veering off into pronouncements such as "there's a cry of pain coming out of the body politic of America." He spends far too much time explaining his irrelevant theories, such as that female values are based on family values whereas male values are based on the maketplace, and for someone who's obviously well-educated and erudite, Freed manages to mispronounce any number of fairly common words. The most interesting factoid here is that in the original stage version, Nixon finishes the evening by erasing what he's just taped, implying that these drunken confessions are a regular occurrence as he tries new stories and myths to explain his downfall.

81 minutes of documentary footage of Nixon's speeches is also included, ranging from his famous "Checkers" speech to his sweaty, tear-filled farewell to the White House staff after his resignation in 1974. They're all full frame, and both video and audio quality are variable, but for someone who is barely old enough to remember his resignation, it's fascinating to see the public face of Nixon and compare it to his portrayal in the film. The two things that stand out are that Nixon frequently referred to himself in the third person, and that he felt it necessary to repeatedly deny that he had used any public money for private gain (the whole reason for the "Checkers" speech), as he mentions it in many of the clips included here.

The gem of the extras in a new 21m:51s interview with Philip Baker Hall. Letterboxed at 1.85, the video interview segments look great, and they're punctuated with stills from Hall's stage performances, pictures of Nixon, and most interestingly, Super 8mm behind-the-scenes footage taken during the filming of Secret Honor. Hall recounts his move from New York to Los Angeles, the genesis of play, and Altman's involvement in both the stage productions and the filmed version. He goes on to discuss the complicated choreography needed for the camera and microphone to follow his manic movements on the set, the break room that he and Altman shared between takes, the effect the film had on his career, and how it led to his relationship with director Paul Thomas Anderson.

In three pages of succinct but informative notes, film critic Michael Wilmington discusses Hall's performance, the film's conspiracy theory version of history, and its production history.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Philip Baker Hall gives a magnificent performance as the oft-reviled Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor. The transfer is good, and interesting extras, including historical footage of Nixon, add up to a winning package.


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