Ladies and Gentlemen of the American Jury

Robert Altman’s Secret Honor

Is it possible to make great art about someone you hate?

The question has haunted creators for millennia. The desire of passionate people to portray in art the lives of powerful men who they despise, but whose force of personality and will come to dominate the times in which they live, is constantly opposed by the realization that such art can often come across as doggerel or dogma. Too little sympathy for one’s nemesis, and his fictional analog will come across as a one-dimensional cartoon; too much and you leave yourself open to the suggestion that you’re really on their side after all. Some have simply chosen not to pick up the gauntlet: “I hate Reagan,” explained photographer Ansel Adams in response to persistent questions about why he had never portrayed the hugely popular president. “I can’t just ignore my feelings and take pretty pictures.”

A cursory look at Robert Altman’s filmmaking history and a sidelong listen to his commentary for Secret Honor makes it a pretty safe bet that “hate” isn’t too strong a word for his feelings towards Richard Nixon. The Robert Altman who was radicalized by a filming expedition to Vietnam in the 1960s had already made political films when he traveled to Ann Arbor to film the fictional apologia of the man from Yorba Linda, but until that point they had been subtle, general, sly. They would now be naked, specific, flagrant. This would not be the barbed satire we saw in M*A*S*H or the wide-ranging, bipartisan Americana of Nashville: Altman was going to name names and get down to cases, and he was going to do it about Richard Nixon, the most polarizing political figure of a generation.

Curiously, Robert Altman’s most explicitly and furiously political document didn’t start out as an attempt on his part to stick a shiv in the looming figure of Nixon-agoniste. Its actual genesis was as, essentially, a student film. For several years, Altman had been teaching a class at the University of Michigan, and after seeing the stage play of Secret Honor, he hit upon the idea of filming the one-man show, in which a post-Watergate Richard Nixon lays bare his tarnished soul while recording the notes for his next book, as a sort of final exam for his students. Most of the film’s technical crew, as well as its composer and “associate director” (in fact, the man who had directed the stage play) were U of M students and faculty, and Altman, an auteur’s auteur with a reputation for futzing with script and dialogue while filming, changed very little in the script. In the audio commentary he recorded in 1992 — several years before Secret Honor was rediscovered by maverick American film critics and elevated from confusing write-off to forgotten masterpiece ’ Altman cites the movie as one of his personal favorites, while disowning much of the responsibility, crediting instead the writers and sole actor Philip Baker Hall for what we see on screen. (Whatever the appropriate degree of credit where due, the studios had no idea what to make of Secret Honor. Altman unsurprisingly notes that it made no money at all, and the video release reigns as one of the all-time greats of marketing botch-jobs: it was put out under the absurd name Lords of Treason, and the box art features a back-shot of Nixon with a gun to his head standing in front of a white-lace-garter-clad hooker, who curiously does not appear in the film. Well-received in Europe, it had its British debut at the House of Commons, but it barely even cracked the art-house circuit at home.)

Indeed, in some small measure, Altman seems to agree with what a number of observers have said of Secret Honor: it’s not really a Robert Altman film. Where is the sprawling cast? Where is the ambitious storyline? Where are the multiple character arcs woven subtly together? And how can you have people engaging in Altman’s patented crosstalk when there’s only one person in the whole movie? Nixon may have been an asshole, but even he can’t interrupt himself, right? (Wrong, as it turns out. One of Hall’s trademark tics in the relentlessly brilliant, riveting performance is his tendency to let Nixon’s ferocity and tireless urge to explain himself spill over and get ahead of himself, so you end up with lines like this: “When the cameras came on, I was going to drop out of the race. As a matter of fact, I had promised, uh, uh, uh, Pat that I was going to, uh — Pat, of course is my, uh — out of the race. Wife.”) For a long time, there seemed to be among critics a tendency to dismiss Secret Honor — not as a failure like Quintet or H.e.a.l.t.H., but more as a quirk, an oddity, a one-off that Altman peeled off more or less as a favor to some associates and a way to keep his students on their toes.

This view, though, ignores the specific as well as the general situation surrounding the making of Secret Honor. First, it is unquestionably an Altman film through and through, belying even his own claims to the contrary. Besides his film students, Altman cared enough about the production to bring in many of his regulars, including cinematographer Pierre Mignot, cameraman Jean Lepine and art director Stephen Altman to work on it. Following his sour experience with Popeye, Altman had likewise been looking for an excuse to get away from the ’business run by accountants” and do some work outside the Hollywood system, to which he would not fully return until Beyond Therapy. And although, when measured against his oeuvre as a whole, Secret Honor seems like an aberration, it is, in fact, typical of its era. Altman’s previous film had been Streamers, which was likewise a relatively straightforward adaptation of a stage play — this one by David Rabe — and although it had a larger cast, it was still small for Altman (a mere six characters form the dramatic center of the piece) and was generally confined to a single set. (Streamers was also underappreciated, and is long overdue for the Criterion treatment.) And prior to that, Altman had done a TV movie called Rattlesnake in a Cooler, which, despite its bizarre Snakes on a Plane-esque title was, in fact, a one-man play adapted by Altman using techniques that would later turn up in Secret Honor.

On the commentary track, Altman himself puts the lie to his minimal involvement in the film mere minutes after making the claim — he betrays his directorial prowess by talking with unfeigned interest about the challenge of making 90 minutes of a single man talking to himself visually stimulating. His careful explanations of camera placement, odd angles, static shots and objects as characters both confirm his status as a great director and prove that he was far more involved in the translation of what could have been a tedious exercise in monologue into something compelling. Watching Secret Honor for the first time, what grabs at the viewer — and rightly enough — is the then-unknown Philip Baker Hall’s titanic performance as the drunken, raging, endlessly embittered Nixon; what emerges, though, on repeat viewing, is the subtlety and skill of the direction, the fact that the eye is guided to exactly where it should be by Altman (including one terrific shot where Nixon rails against Kissinger, but without saying his name, as our view is guided slowly along the wall of portraits straight to that of the bespectacled diplomat), making it far more than a film built on one admittedly stupendous job of acting.

Robert Altman’s deep understanding of dramatics is also on display in the film itself — for example, in the way he allows Nixon to look noble in one moment (reading a particularly stirring passage from one of his books about a little boy dreaming of becoming the president) and pathetic the next (collapsed in a chair, his clothes disheveled and his posture a drunken mess, fighting back at the perceived slights of his history with a long, childish Bronx cheer). Hall is at the center of the film, inhabiting his character from the first frame and allowing his colossal rage, self-pity, resentment and shame to build up into a final astonishing explosion at the end. But Altman is on the periphery, providing a solid understanding of how this drama works and how it should be framed in order to prove effective for an audience that doesn’t have the benefit of being in the same room as Hall. It is Altman who makes sure we see little bits of business like Nixon swapping the genteel snifter of brandy for the blunt glass of whiskey, or the introduction of the pistol early on at exactly the moment our attention might otherwise drift. And it was Altman’s idea to bring in the device of the security cameras, providing a constant reminder of the confessional nature of Nixon’s ramblings, a nice illustration of his ever-present paranoia, and a means by which to refocus our attention in those moments we might tire of seeing the sole actor in the film talking to himself.

This keen sense of dramatic structure shows up in Altman’s commentary, as well. One of the selling points of the film is that, despite the creators’ personal feelings about Richard Nixon, they manage to produce a portrait of him that is, if not exactly sympathetic, at least visibly — and uncomfortably — human. (One criticism of Secret Honor that’s hard to refute is that its appeal rests pretty heavily on how much you care about Nixon, and how interested you are in the political machinations of his time and place. Here, it is Hall’s performance that proves a saving grace; it is the intensity and feeling of his acting, the shocking but utterly recognizable anger and defensiveness he brings to the role, that makes us want to keep listening even if we don’t know or care about the particulars of the story.) And yet, Altman, not without a certain level of wickedness, undercuts this at every opportunity: watching the film, he takes special care, even in those moments of greatest sympathy, even at the times where we recognize in Nixon a wounded human being who lifted himself through a horrible effort of will to the most exalted of states but never felt justified in his own house, to point out how self-serving, how deceptive, how evasive his behavior is. Altman has little to say about Philip Baker Hall’s performance (though what he says is highly complimentary), but he has a lot to say about Richard Nixon’s: he finds Nixon to be little more than a paid shill, and a bad actor for all that who, in the film, is putting on a show even though there’s no audience but himself.

So, does Robert Altman really hate Richard Nixon? The most candid the director allows himself to get is when he says that he feels more sympathy with Nixon than he does with Ronald Reagan — probably the faintest praise of the 37th president America would hear until George W. Bush got elected and people started saying that Nixon looked good by comparison. And even here, the mildness is undercut by Altman’s preceding comment that you can make anyone look sympathetic using art, even Hitler. If Altman doesn’t hate Nixon, it’s only because he doesn’t hate anybody. But he proved that you can make art about someone you hate, that you can put your feelings aside and take pretty pictures — and that behind those pretty pictures, your feelings will still be there for everyone to see.