Secret Honor (1984):

Somewhere between Dan Aykroyd's SNL skewering and Oliver Stone's pseudo-Shakespearean mythologizing, Robert Altman's "fictional meditation" on Richard Nixon is not only a highlight among his '80s stage adaptations, but also the most trenchant American political study since The Private Lives of J. Edgar Hoover. Like that unheralded Larry Cohen piece, it pins down Watergate as the culmination of a nation's political rot, only the anarchic kaleidoscope of the earlier film is funneled into the solitary, slumped figure of one Tricky Dick (incarnated by Philip Baker Hall, before his Hollywood late-blooming via Paul Thomas Anderson). Walled in a wood-paneled office with a whiskey bottle and a loaded gun, the disgraced Nixon dictates into a recording machine a marathon monologue that seesaws between maudlin defense and ferocious exposure -- confessional, self-immolation, and all-around apologia pro vita sua. As envisioned in the play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone, he is sputtering sexist-racist, befuddled momma's boy, Abe Lincoln wannabe, "Bohemian Grove" stooge, Vietnam War puppet, self-regarding embodiment of the "American Dream" and, finally, an old demon with a human face. Altman, who made the project during his University of Michigan teaching stint, prods further by suggesting the braided links between politics, performance and the packaging of images, as he watches the fallen president stew in his own juices. The camera's eye is as implacable as the august gaze of the Washington, Eisenhower, and Kissinger portraits on the walls, further multiplied by the four surveillance video monitors. In the end, the film is less an indictment of Nixon than an implosion of an entire political system, with his final "Fuck 'em!" Sieg Heil amplified into cacophony, only to crumple down into static. Cinematography by Pierre Mignot.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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