Friday, November 4, 2016

Super Delegates Bonus: Richard M. Nixon in "Secret Honor" (1984)

Philip Baker Hall
Welcome to Super Delegates Bonus. As a subsidiary of Super Delegates, the sporadic additional column is meant to explore depictions of politicians on film outside of the conventional methods of the column. This ranges from everything such as political candidates in TV movies and miniseries to real life candidates providing feedback on their pop culture representation. While not as frequent or conventional, the goal is to help provide a vaster look at politics on film as it relates to the modern election year. Join in and have some fun. One can only imagine what will be covered here.

Secret Honor
Release Date: September 14, 1985
Directed By: Robert Altman
Written By: Donald Freed & Arnold M. Stone (Play, Screenplay)
Starring: Philip Baker Hall
Awards: N/A
Delegates in Question:
-President Richard M. Nixon

*NOTE: Part of the Richard M. Nixon series.

The career of Richard M. Nixon may very well have been a godsend to pop culture. True, it had some extremely controversial decisions attached to it, but can someone imagine the future of political entertainment without him? The impact of Watergate revived journalism and brought about All the President's Men. The conflicting nature of good and evil lead to Oliver Stone's phenomenal Nixon biopic. Even the confession of Nixon as a quiet and insecure man made for the tender Frost/Nixon. The list could go on, but what should be noted is that the further away from his resignation in 1974 that society gets, the more likely it is that cinema will dictate his future. The same could be said for any president who grew up after the advent of film, but how many have defined a decade of cinema (in his case with the Vietnam War), and is himself a fascinatingly complex man? 

Nobody comes close, and few films capture the essence of the man quite like director Robert Altman's Secret Honor. The title is pulled from the quote "Secret honor, public shame." It takes place on the cusp of his resignation and finds him disheveled and neurotic. Much like how Watergate relied on tape recordings, Secret Honor uses them as the central therapeutic tool that causes Philip Baker Hall's Nixon to open up while sweating and pacing the room in  quick procession. He is the only actor on screen, and it makes all of the difference. This is a story featuring his internal monologue out loud. What proceeds isn't actually history, but the writers' interpretation of the politician's struggle as he contemplates his very existence.

To summarize, the story runs the entire course of Nixon's career through monologue. He discusses his desire to impress his mother. He talks about how he blames Henry Kissinger. He loathes his entire staff while staring at portraits on the various walls. What is most fascinating about his unpacking is that it begins to justify a man whose actions weren't often considered appropriate. The story sympathizes him in a way that keeps him from ever becoming the victim, but always manages to apply pity to him. The struggle of being a good president wears on him, and the side effects show. He may be passing blame at points to his cabinet, but it shows how complex the system is and how one mistake can alter the world's perception of you.

Secret Honor is in some ways haunting, in part because it shows Nixon's greedy side in its most unapologetic light. The final moments of the one man film show Hall raising his fist in the air and shouting "F--k them!" repeatedly before cutting to credits, where an unseen crowd shouts "Four more years," implying the potential for what a Watergate-free term in office would've looked like. What starts as a memoir-style narration slowly turns into Nixon grappling with himself and soon becoming overwhelmed with what he finds. Is he right? Is he wrong? He's a little of everything on the spectrum, and the paranoia of not being accepted as good haunts him. He wants to be seen as a hero, and the idea of being burdened with a public shame haunts him.

It should be noted that the film isn't specifically accurate. In fact, the credits boldly state that it's a fictionalized account. Depending on how well you know politics in 1974, it comes across as pretty convincing. The accusations all stem from hot button issues with figures who likely still bothered Americans a decade later. Considering that the presidents to follow were still doing their best to win over America's trust, Nixon's imposing nature could likely be seen all over the film. For a man that seems so demonic in history, he comes across as very flawed in his filmed adaptations, whether it be cartoon evil (Futurama) or sympathetic (Frost/Nixon). He is everything about politics that makes for fascinating case studies. It is likely why no president for a 10 term radius on either side really comes close in terms of cinematic impact.

The question that rises from Secret Honor is the same one that could be found in every Nixon story. How do you separate the man and the work? This is largely difficult, because politics is largely based on deeply held beliefs. Nobody could fault Nixon for staying true to whatever he wanted. However, his status in American history tends to be altered in the wake of Watergate in quite compelling fashion. While all presidents have blunders, few are defined by them in quite the same fashion. It is largely because Nixon was the only resigning president. It is also because it altered the public's perception of government in damaging ways. Still, decades passed and many still hated his guts despite positive changes as well. Is Nixon in need of a career reassessment? Maybe. At least, that is how cinema wishes to address the matter. 

Following Nixon, there have been seven presidents. While each of them have their own substantial legacy, few of them have gotten the cinematic treatment of Nixon. It could just be that by comparison most are quaint and have noble legacies. They lack the essence of drama, and therefore find fault with making a movie around. Who knows which president will take up the mantle next after Nixon. Maybe it will be determined in this upcoming election. Maybe it will take another 20 years. In fairness, Nixon's demise is unprecedented and hasn't even been matched since. No event has been as controversial as Watergate, though many have come close. Secret Honor may not be the most faithful adaptation of his career, but it's the most telling of him as an individual. He's flawed yet passionate about what he does, and he's almost too human to ever truly hate.

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