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Film / Secret Honor

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"You have read in the press the reasons for the Watergate affair. Today, my client is going to reveal to you the reasons behind the reasons."

A 1984 film by Robert Altman, starring Philip Baker Hall as former U.S. President Richard Nixon, written by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone and based on an earlier play by the author.

The movie is essentially a ninety-minute one-man performance, based around Nixon — at some point following his resignation in disgrace after the Watergate scandal — dictating into a tape recorder in his study for an unseen aide, 'Roberto', with a bottle of liquor and a loaded revolver. While the subject matter begins rather mundanely, Nixon's train of thought tends to wander, leading him into an increasingly rambling, heated monologue about his life, political career and political enemies, aimed at an unseen (and presumably non-existent) judge and jury, gradually building to an undisclosed hidden truth about Watergate and the real circumstances behind his resignation.

Secret Honor provides examples of:

  • Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Nixon occasionally intersperses shocking political revelations with mundane instructions to buy the hospitalized wife of his gardener a portable radio or a fruit basket.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Nixon scatters these throughout the monologue. They're usually aimed at targets such as Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and his brothers, Henry Kissinger and the American public in general.
  • Driven to Suicide: Subverted. Nixon nearly shoots himself in the head at the climax, only to change his mind and decide to continue living simply to spite his enemies.
    Nixon: They flushed me down the toilet. They wanted me to kill myself. Well, I won't do it. If they want me dead, they'll have to do it.
  • I Am the Noun: Nixon rants on how he is the embodiment of the American Dream, which is true in a twisted sort of sense.
    Nixon: I am America. I'm a winner who lost every battle, up to and including the war. I am not the American nightmare. I am the American Dream. Period. That's why the system works. Because I am the system. Period.
  • Large Ham: Nixon. He lampshades it at one point while reminiscing and bragging about having played Hamlet in college.
  • The Man Behind the Man: The 'Bohemian Grove' and the 'Committee of 100' that Nixon alludes appear to have been a consortium of businessmen who assisted Nixon in his various political endeavors in order to get him to be their puppet.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: One of the few times Nixon expresses genuine guilt is for his involvement in Alger Hiss's imprisonment for allegedly being a Communist spy.
  • Never My Fault: Nixon absolutely refuses to take responsibility for his own actions and shifts the blame to everyone he can, from his family to the 'Bohemian Grove' to the American public itself while casting himself as a martyr.
    Nixon: Your honor, the defendant is only guilty of being Richard Milhouse Nixon!
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Nixon constantly says racial slurs throughout his rant, insulting every ethnic group under the sun that isn't Irish or Italian. He's also proudly misogynistic and boasts about his hatred of women.
  • Title Drop
  • Tragic Villain: Nixon. He's undoubtedly a Jerkass, but the film shows how much of his actions were motivated by a dysfunctional childhood and the classism he faced for his working-class roots. He's undeniably a bad man, but pitiable nonetheless.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Given how increasingly rambling and unhinged Nixon becomes over the course of his monologue, and given his already less-than-stellar reputation for truth-telling and white-washing his own personal history, it's hard to tell exactly how much of what he's revealing is true and how much is him either exaggerating, distorting or outright lying.
  • The Unseen: Roberto, the aide to whom Nixon is dictating. Also, the judge and 'the American jury' to whom Nixon addresses a lot of his monologue presumably doesn't exist outside Nixon's head.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Nixon essentially goes through a slow-burning one over the course of the movie.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Nixon is portrayed as such, constantly begging for his mother's approval and obsessing over her opinion of him.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Nixon's ranting implies the Bohemian Grove were genuinely motivated by freeing countries from oppressive dictatorships and communism. Nixon himself scoffs at their motivations, and admits he was just in it for power.
  • Working-Class Hero: Nixon considers himself one, frequently emphasizing his own working class background and admitting he allied with the Bohemian Grove at least partially because a majority of them came from similar hardscrabble roots.