In this, what I was to call older things that I like, and wanna write about, because, why not? I wanna look at Robert Altman's A Secret Honor, and/or The Last Testament of Richard Nixon.
Recently I reread Alan Moore's Good Reads interview, which is, by the way, a great interview if you wanna get into the ideas that Moore thinks about and the very sad about the personal fallings-out that he had with a lot of his good friends, over a lot of some of his greatest work. And get a lot of really good recommendations for books, but that's besides the point. The larger thing.
So he brought up A Secret Honor recently, and that inspired me to give that a rewatch. And my God, it's a good movie. Secret Honor is maybe the best Nixon movie, and that's a high order, but I think I can justify it. Starring Philip Baker Hall in maybe his best performance. I like Philip Baker Hall, but this is truly the Philip Baker Hall show, because he's the only actor in it. But it's that old chestnut of, you know, if you're a really good actor is that you can hold an entire movie by yourself. And that's definitively true here.
It's sometime after Watergate, and he's left the Presidency. He's alone in his study. And there's a bunch of pictures placed around, including Kennedy, which ... I don't know, that was kind of funny. It's like, did Nixon really have a picture of Kennedy? His single most hated enemy, the man that every time he looked at it, bitterly reminded him of all the things he wished he could be? Maybe.
Talking into a tape recorder. Dick, always with the tape recorder. Always the tape recorder. it starts normally, and somewhat humorously in that he doesn't really know how tape recorders work - well, this one. He starts drinking more, and he drinks and pulls out a gun, which he loads. And what starts as a rational Nixon-ish ideal turns into a batshit insane rambling monologue, where he attempts to where he acts as his own prosecutor to an unseen jury, judge and jury, and tries to explain the nature of Nixon and every action he committed. And it's a go-through of his personal life, his Presidency. And he goes further and further, and it makes some very disturbing claims.
It talks about potential people that were in control. And it ends with him claiming that Watergate was his noble sacrifice to the American people, by helping him get out of Watergate, of the Presidency, so they couldn't reverse the third term, which ... it has popped up in the news, reverts ... I think it's the 22nd Amendment, and allowed him to run for a third term, which suddenly became relevant again with the crazed madman in China talking about that.
The performance is excellent, and ... I had wondered slightly about this, 'cause there's some fairly conspiratorial things that Nixon is rambling about. Of course, A, Nixon is getting drunker and drunker and angrier and angrier, and the recurring theme is that Nixon is a paranoid person who does not know, who is trying to justify himself in every regard and hates everyone and everything.
And it's interesting, 'cause ... I'm sure some young film student like me thought this briefly, but decided "Oh God no, I'm not doing that." Will look at this film and go like, "You know what I probably should do, is do this with Trump." And I'm sure at some point, there will be. Maybe. And I thought, really look at it. 'Cause everything he did wrong is "Nope, not me. It's this conspiracy, or it's these powerful people all against me, and they're all looking out to get me, and it's the money, and the power. And I am uncontrolled in it."
Nixon in here is a raving lunatic, and this movie is scary in some ways, truthfully. Like really scary.
There's a great little setup with, there's four. There's a security camera, and there's four images. you can see Nixon with four different images, and that's a weirdly powerful visual. I can't totally explain it, except that the low resolution of it makes it look off, in a large way.
I was horrified in a weirdly sympathetic ... Nixon, in the end, just seems so destroyed by everything. This is a person that no matter what he did, feels destroyed. He was the most powerful, but in a weird way he still felt powerless. It's impossible to look at, I don't know. And I think if you look at him in that context, that movie ages beautifully. As a paranoid, very delusional person whose life is in shambles, and no matter what he did, he can never really experience true happiness.
It's interesting. This is a Robert Altman movie, and Robert Altman is just, I don't know. Maybe one of the all time, maybe greatest American filmmakers that ever existed. Whose every single film is brilliant and beautiful in some way. And he made so many, it's crazy. This might be one of my favorites of his, and that means probably it's one of my favorite movies. I don't like to assign roles like that.
There's an interesting parallel that Altman himself was essentially in exile, because he did this as essentially a final project for his students at the University of Michigan, where he was teaching film. Although unlike Nixon, Altman was welcomed back heartily. I've seen a lot of reviews compare the two, and there's something there. But I don't know totally. I think that's maybe why Nixon comes off you know, he's a crazy madman who's allowing his paranoid delusions to finally take hold of him. The paintings around him, he feels are in constant judgment of him.
He just feels betrayed, fundamentally, by the system he dedicated himself to. It's a system he hated and resented and knew it would betray him, but he did it anyways. And maybe there's a way Altman is in there, and feels that. And this concept of secret honor is an interesting one, I find. That nobody else will give Nixon honor; nobody else will allow him that. So he has to make the honor himself, and say "Nobody understands this but me, that I have this honor in the world."
The filming is just fantastic. There's very little music in it, but you don't need it. Philip Baker Hall's performance is a beautiful opera performance. That's all you need. I love Philip Baker Hall, but Philip Baker Hall is one of these really great actors that is a kind of a guy who'll just ... if you pay Philip Baker Hall, Philip Baker Hall will be in a movie for you. So sometimes he uses that natural gravitas to not really care, you know. But this, he's utterly perfect. I'm not disparaging Philip Baker Hall, I'm just saying that Philip Baker Hall enjoys money and having it I believe he's the one who commissioned this idea, not 100% certain about that. But whatever.
It's great. There's a repeated thing where Nixon loses his train of thought, and he plays that brilliantly. I feel like that's a little bit of a thing that attracted Altman, is it's a weirdly ... for a monologue, it has realistic diction a lot of the time. And he'll try and say something, like one of the recurring jokes in this is, he'll say a phrase that is well known, and he'll go like, "We were both ... you know, you know. You know, that. That."
He can't bring himself to say almost half the stuff he wants to say. There's an interesting, very telling line where he talks about pact. You know, he says "Of course, I Ahhh Ahhhh."
The difference between Nixon and Trump, I think is the idea of I think in a lot of ways, Nixon felt heartbroken by all of the things that were said about him. Whereas Trump feels just pure anger at all the things that are said about him. Which is good.
This is a great film. Fundamentally. If you wanna see ... I recently got into kind of a bit of an argument with a friend, not an argument. A tiff. Where they talked about how films are too expensive to make. And that frustrated me, 'cause it's like, you know, great films can be made with very limited resources, and this is kind of the perfect example of that. One actor, one set, absolutely brilliant in every regard. I can't recommend this enough.