Disgraced former President Richard M. Nixon (Philip Baker Hall) sits alone in his study. He has a bottle of Scotch, a loaded gun, and a tape recorder. He is surrounded by security monitors and paintings. All but one of the paintings are portraits of former presidents, all of whom are destined to be more fondly remembered than Nixon. The only non-presidential painting is a portrait of Henry Kissinger. Over the course of one long night, Nixon drinks and talks. He talks about his Quaker upbringing and his early political campaigns. He rails against all of his perceived enemies: Eishenhower, the Kennedys, the liberals, the conservatives, and everyone in between. As he gets drunker, he starts to talk about the real story behind Watergate and why his resignation actually shielded the country from a greater scandal. As Nixon explains it, his resignation was his greatest act of patriotism, his secret honor.
A mix of historical fact and speculation, Secret Honor was one of the filmed plays that Robert Altman directed in between the flop of Popeye and his comeback with The Player. Secret Honor is a one-man show, with Philip Baker Hall and only Philip Baker Hall on screen for the entire movie. Though he looks nothing like Nixon, Hall gives an amazing performance. Hall’s Nixon is bitter, angry, full of self-pity, and occasionally even sympathetic. Altman’s stagey direction makes no attempt to hide Secret Honor‘s theatrical origins but it is impossible to look away from Hall’s mesmerizing performance.
(Secret Honor was made long before Hall found fame as a character actor. It was his fourth feature film and his first major role.)
Secret Honor will probably not change anyone’s opinion on Nixon. Nixon haters will find more to hate and Nixon defenders will find more to defend. But everyone will agree that Philip Baker Hall gives a great performance as one of America’s most controversial presidents.