If you've ever lived in a city, you've probably encountered this type of person before. They're mumbling to themselves, sometimes ranting, sorting through the jumbled narrative that is their lives and digging for clues as to what went wrong. Occasionally, they shout EXPLETIVES to no one in particular. You probably continue on your merry way, deftly avoiding them, assuming they are either schizophrenic, homeless or both. But what if this person did have a home? And what if it just so happened to be the White House?
That's the basic premise in Altman's filmed theater piece Secret Honor, which shines a harsh klieg light on the lunatic ravings of post-Watergate Richard M. Nixon, played to the manic hilt by Phillip Baker Hall in an adaptation of his tour-de-force one man show. Altman's camera doesn't allow you to just go on your merry way. He locks you into Nixon's cramped study and claustrophobic mind and throws away the key. You're stuck with a paranoiac, one who just so happens to have been a U.S. president, as he attempts to piece together his fractured private and public life into a tape recorder to an unseen biographer ("Roberto") while defending himself to an unnamed judge ("Your Honor").
It’s a tough display to watch, primarily because Altman lets the monologue play out like a true schizoid street scene in awkward fits and starts. Hall’s Nixon punctuates his jumbled narrative with shouted attacks and personal pleas before descending into brief moments of quiet reflection. We’re watching a desperate mind at work, and it’s an ugly thing to behold. The only cutaways Altman provides aren’t really reprieves-- shots of security monitors, microphones, tape recorders, brandy snifters, Presidential portraits-- all of them staring back at Nixon and the viewer, constantly haunting him and reminding us what went wrong. Unlike the anonymous angry ranter on the street, we have the advantage of knowing Nixon’s highly public backstory. The movie works on two planes--as history-based speculation of what Nixon’s post-Watergate days were like and a simple character study of a mind in meltdown. Altman begins the movie with a disclaimer that the film is both a work of fiction and an “attempt to understand.” In the end, I’m not so sure that Hall’s Nixon understands himself. His rant builds to a harrowing crescendo of overlapping screams: “Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em! Fuck ‘em!” He's looked deep within and only found more vitriol.
In a way, Secret Honor is Altman's own f-you to mainstream audiences after his late-'70s Hollywood disappointments (Quintet, H.E.A.L.T.H., Popeye). He won’t let you look away from this ugly street scene, even if it happens to take place in a comfy Oval Office den. It asks the tough questions: How did a man like this happen? How did he happen to United States? And why do we keep electing them President?