Saturday, December 30, 2006


This past week’s glut of national mourning for Gerald Ford has, of course, renewed debate over his unconditional pardon of the Trickster. And that, in turn, prompted me last night to revisit one of my favorite, little-seen, 1980s movie classics — the late Robert Altman’s Secret Honor.

I saw the original stage production starring Philip Baker Hall (remember him as Seinfeld’s library cop?) in 1984 at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theater, a teeny 35-seat auditorium tucked away on a side street off Hollywood Boulevard. Hall’s solo performance was loud, profane, savage, and amazingly sympathetic. And I’ve always felt grateful that his “Nixon” was eventually captured on film. The movie sprung out of Altman’s University of Michigan filmmaking class and is a perfect translation of the Donald Freed/Arnold M. Stone stage play to film.

Secret Honor is one of the great political movies of the last half-century. It offers a conspiratorial view of history, one that most radicals will have no problem embracing, and the script brims with the in-depth research material that Freed is known for. In a way, this movie is complemented nicely by Oliver Stone’s 1995 film Nixon. Secret Honor portrays the former president as a simple player in a grander scheme, a puppet of the notorious, big-money “Bohemian Grove.” And his lonely, post-resignation “testimony,” delivered late one night at his retreat, pulls his whole political career into frightening focus.

If you’ve never seen Secret Honor, rush to Netflix and rent it immediately. Or do as I did a couple of years ago — buy a copy of Criterion’s DVD, which includes full-length commentaries by Altman and Freed, an interview with Hall, and about an hour’s worth of old Nixon film clips, including his Checkers and resignation speeches. The movie is not only worth viewing as a terrific film. It’s worth studying.


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