- May 7, 2001
The Criterion Collection
Rated: Not Rated
Film Length: 90 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
Audio: DD Monaural
Package: Single disc/Keepcase
Secret Honor is described as a work of fiction that uses Richard Millhouse Nixon as its one and only character. The film depends heavily on actual facts from Nixon's personal life and his time in office as a necessity and similar to films relying on such facts i.e. JFK (1991), there is always a fear of confusing fact and fiction. The film is basically a one-man-show adapted from the stage play written by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone and the film’s director, Robert Altman toured around the country with it.
Reflecting on his past life experiences including those in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon (played brilliantly by a relatively then unknown, Philip Baker Hall) sits down with a bottle of Chivas Regal, his trusty tape recorder and a loaded revolver to spill his guts.
Philip Baker Hall is captivating in the role and turns in a masterful performance in this gritty portrayal of Nixon. He spends much of the time fumbling around the office with tape machines and casting vague hints into the real motives behind the whole ordeal. Much of his prattling is spent addressing an imaginary judge in a court of public opinion, while the rest of the time is spent addressing an aide named Roberto, leaving instructions for him to basically erase everything he’s previously recorded. And sometimes he just talks to himself, in a meandering manner recounting various experiences.
Throughout the course of the film, Nixon blames everyone from Castro and Kissinger and focuses on a special hatred for anyone named Kennedy, for all his problems while never really accepting responsibility himself – a self absorbed man who refuses to admit his failures. And as Nixon rails at his treatment by the likes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Kennedys, J. Edgar Hoover, Henry Kissinger and even the media, he leads up to the true reasons for the Watergate scandal that resulted in his resignation as President - an act he regards as one of Secret Honor.
The movie was shot while Altman was at the University of Michigan as part of his filmmaking class. The set was constructed in a residence hall and video cameras were installed so that students could observe the production. Though Altman used much of his regular crew, university students in the film program filled many of the technical positions.
The Feature: 3.5/5
Apparently this was originally shot with an AR of 1.33:1 on 16mm film and while I’m sure Criterion did the best they could with what they had, simply put, this doesn’t look great on the big screen (96”).
What struck me initially was the amount of artifiacting. Clearly, there is a significant amount of artifacting, presumably due to the initial filming process. The majority of fixed objects appear to be “alive”, particularly those with solid color backgrounds. Consequently, the entirety of the film looks rather dull and flat, lacking any real depth or dimension.
The level of image definition was barely satisfactory, looking rather soft – even unfocused throughout the course of the film. The print appeared to be free of any dust or dirt and the film contained a moderate amount of fine grain throughout the entire film.
Colors were slightly muted falling short of vibrant, although in all fairness, the entire film takes place in a single office, so it’s pretty difficult to gauge the entire palette. Blacks were satisfactory and whites were adequately stark and clean.
The image was solid and free of any shimmer or jitter.
Not really a lot to say here in terms of the audio track. The DD monaural track is a basic as you can get, although it does the job handily.
The entire track was clean and free of any cracks or pops although a slight amount of hiss persisted throughout.
The entire film was dialogue driven with no exception, taking place in a single room. The dialogue was always bold and intelligible.
My only observation, above and beyond the expected, was a level of volume that fluctuated (increased) several times which I had to knock back with the remote. Not a big deal.
Even though this Criterion disc comes under the company’s lower price point (read, very few special features), those that are included are informative and worthwhile, starting with:
[*] A pair of Commentaries which feature director Robert Altman and co-writer Donald Freed – each participant can be selected individually. These are both pretty well done. Mr. Altman’s participation starts by taking us through the conceptual process and how it eventually came to be, including the location of the shoot and the obstacles they incurred filming in such a small space, the choice of Philip Baker Hall and most importantly, the transformation process from stage play to film. As for Mr. Freed’s participation, he spends much of his time focusing on the conceptual part of the film from the stage play including more history of the play itself. Mr. Freed offers up a great amount of information as well although he tends to become a little philosophical at times. He isn’t quite as easy on the ears as Mr. Altman.
[*] An Interview with Philip Baker Hall is a pretty candid effort as Mr. Hall starts by discussing his entry in show business including has arrival in Los Angeles and starting late in life. He also spends a great deal of time discussing how he planned to pull off the 90 minute solo performance and describes his techniques. He also discusses his experiences with the play and makes comparisons and how they relate to the film. Great little interview, filled with relevant information pertaining to his character and the film. Duration: 21:52 minutes.
[*] The next special feature is called President Richard M. Nixon and includes a number of public addresses and speeches including the infamous “Checkers Speech”, as well as a number of speeches which took place during the Watergate investigation e.g. Nixon – A Self Portrait from 1968, Q&A Session from the AP in 1973 and Nixon’s Farewell Speech from 1974. Duration: 81:00 minutes.
[*] Finally, there is an 8 page folded Insert that accompanies the disc which includes a complete Cast & Crew list, a Chapter Listing and a 3 page essay on the film written by Michael Wilmington, film critic for the Chicago Tribune.
Special Features: 4/5
**Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**
Despite the wonderful performance of Philip Baker Hall, I found myself clockwatching as this film played on and spent much of my time thinking I was watching a play. That’s not really a criticism nor do I have anything against the stage, but I couldn’t help but think I was watching a “play” no matter how hard I tried to stay focused on the “film”.
Given the manner in which the movie was shot, considerations have to be made in terms of the presentation, but all considerations aside, it doesn’t show up well on the big screen. Criterion has also included a few worthwhile special features to complement the film. If you’re a diehard fan of Altman and his work or this film in particular, you might want to give this some consideration, otherwise I’d suggest a rental first.
Overall Rating: 3.5/5 (not an average)
Release Date: October 19th, 2004