One Man, One Room, One Overly-Extended Scene, One Great Performance
It is proof of brilliant film making when a director is able to sustain a film for ninety minutes, when everything that happens in it is a man talking. I cannot deny that at times Secret Honor feels as though it is dragging, but it always manages to lift up and take us out of our boredom. I cannot believe that this film only has one actor and one character. It is a completely innovative concept that is well executed. Just the fact that Secret Honor works is enough to congratulate it for.
The film’s plot is fairly basic. It is the story of Richard M. Nixon who has just resigned from his presidency. He proceeds to dictate the exploits of his life. This becomes increasingly dramatic as his alcohol supply slowly lowers.
At the very core of this film is the great portrayal of Richard Nixon by the very underrated Philip Baker Hall. If this performance had been at all “bad”, then the film would certainly suffer. Yet, Baker Hall is masterful in his acting as he manages to maintain an enigmatic amount of energy as his character runs around the room, screaming out curse words at the top of his lungs. I suppose the leading flaw in Baker Hall’s acting in this film, is most likely the fact that he is not particularly realistic in his performances. I don’t believe anyone would run around the room screaming at the walls like this character does, since this character has a need to express himself towards the audience. In reality, it goes without saying, that there is no audience when we are in privacy. But, perhaps that was the point. After all, this is a fictional accounting of the resignation of Richard Nixon, not what actually happened. Baker Hall’s brilliance as Richard Nixon is very much on the same level as Daniel Day Lewis’ brilliance with the character of Daniel Plainview. They share a similar capacity of exuberance and in the end of the film, they both seem to be in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
I cannot say I truly consider Secret Honor to be a great film because in the end, not even Altman knows what he’s going for. Unless he’s trying to same something about where power lands (which would make Secret Honor all too simple, and therefore very disappointing), I do not believe anyone can even begin to express the commentary which Altman intended for people to hear from his film. I have the same problem with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is a film I am very fond of. There is the simple concept of evolution which it is clear Kubrick was attempting to tackle, but what on Earth was the rest of the film actually supposed to say? 2001 is an incredible experience with the most dazzling cinematic scenes I have possibly ever seen, but in the end, I fail to comprehend what exactly it was that Kubrick wanted to say. In fact, I doubt that Kubrick even knew exactly what 2001 was really about. He knew if he made a lot of flashing lights and confusing sequences, people would bow down to him and accept him as the genius he was. But here’s how I see it: if a director doesn’t know what the film’s purpose is, or at least if they don’t have an idea of what the purpose is for them, it is not an example of genius symbolism and metaphorical value. That is what I feel Secret Honor suffers from as well.
Perhaps Altman wanted us to step into the shoes of one of America’s most hated men, Richard Nixon and begin to understand him. I’ve heard from other people that by the time the film was over, they were sympathizing with Nixon, and for that reason, they considered Secret Honor to be a masterpiece. When the film was over, I did not sympathize with Richard Nixon. I think that is the reason that separates me from being one of those people who consider it as one of the most underrated cinematic achievements of all time. I think the people who love the film are the people who understand what Nixon has gone through, and the people who just like it somewhat were annoyed by the character. I found that I was part of the group who were annoyed by Richard Nixon in the end. I wish I could begin to quite understand how Altman’s magic works so that he can change the opinion of a political topic for his audience. I wish I could step into the shoes of someone who this film works for, but I cannot. Therefore, I will never see it the same way as some other people manage to.
There are moments in Secret Honor when Nixon will shout out some bizarre phrase, and we can hear in the background the soundtrack of what seems to be a patriotic marching band. Such sounds continued to echo through the film as I watched it. This was a wasted effect that brought me nothing but aggravation. I fail to comprehend Altman’s intentions (once more) with the soundtrack. At first I thought it was a marching band - to symbolize the great American army, but later on the instruments changed and they contradicted such an idea. Secret Honor is filled with lots of bizarre little things in it that make you raise an eyebrow at Altman’s direction. Some people love it because it is bizarre, and others, such as myself, criticize it for it’s seeming randomness in connection with the rest of the film.
Again, I’m rating this film on my experience watching it. For the reason, Secret Honor is not the masterpiece many people consider it to be, but it certainly is a decent film. I intend to revisit it sometime down the road. I hope you give it a watching, so you can tell me what you think!
Directed by Robert Altman,
Starring: Philip Baker Hall
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