Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Secret Honor (1984)

My sense of dissatisfaction with most everything about Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon except Frank Langella's fine performance finally convinced me to bump Robert Altman's take on Tricky Dick to the top of my Netflix queue. Good move.

It took me a while to get around to Secret Honor because the project -- a cinematic adaptation of a one man play that imagines despondent former President Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) reciting a shaggy, ferocious stream of consciousness monologue into a tape recorder -- sounds like the total opposite of prime Altman material. Altman is a director whose best films burst to the edges with actors and characters (Nashville, Short Cuts) with dialogue exchanges between them that flow and overlap in ways that, if not quite like actual speech, are not quite like anything else we hear in movie theaters. One guy, in one room, for ninety minutes? Who will Altman cut to? Who will interrupt him?

Perhaps this is part of what interested Altman about the piece; to challenge himself with a setup so seemingly alien to his traditional milieu. You watch the film and you see how he solved both dillemas. Secret Honor is no contemplative slow-burn; Hall as Nixon is an inferno of rage and bitterness, and he needs no other characters to interrupt him because he does that fine on his own; changing thoughts mid-stream, then changing again as he alternately defends himself against charges of corruption and points the blame at a variety of perceived guilty parties in his downfall. The problem of what to cut to in a room with one man was solved by Altman himself on the first day of production when he conceived, on the spot, of the notion of Nixon extending his well-known tendency toward self-recording to encompass a video camera and monitor system, so that Nixon can film himself as he speaks, and watch himself on a bank of TV screens as he does it.

Hall's Nixon, much like Langella's, has felt like the outsider all of his life, and much of his drive to succeed comes from his desire to show those handed power because of wealth or class that they shouldn't have dismissed or doubted him. Now the system has chewed him up and spit him out. Altman, in a period of his career where work was not easy to come by in Hollywood, could relate. The film's final and literal middle finger to the audience, to the whole world, suggests that Altman was unwilling to compromise his vision to get back in the movie industry's good graces. He'd simply wait until his interests and theirs reintertwined. Until then, as Nixon says, fuck 'em.

Visually, the movie isn't much to write home about. Invention of the surveillance system notwithstanding, Altman doesn't have a whole lot to work with, and with such a commanding performance from Hall front and center, he probably didn't want to. The movie is shot in television aspect ratio and it does feel, at times, like someone recorded a play. But then there are moments and images like the one below, in which Altman suggests a modern rematch to the pen and the sword may have a slightly different outcome, that remind you that Altman, like Nixon, was not a man to be underestimated. He would be back.



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