It is 1974
. In the Oval Office
, beleaguered president Richard M. Nixon
, career in ruins, savaged by the media
, sets the reels of his private taping system in motion one last time and starts to lay down the secret history
of his presidency for posterity.
Beginning with the story of how he answered a wanted ad for a political candidate, clinching the deal with unnamed figures from the military-industrial power-elite at their favourite country club, he describes the transaction that kicked off his corrupt political career: "I sold my soul at Bohemian Grove."
In fits and starts, interrupted by his constant wastebasketing of what has gone before, torn between wanting to reveal all and the knowledge of the retribution that this will bring, he mutters and cajoles, swears and curses, pleads and spills his way through the inside story of his rise to the summit of government and his time in power.
As he drinks more he lets more details slip, interrupting himself to act out his troubled relations with his mother, and to swear at and converse with the portraits of Eisenhower and Kissinger
on the Oval Office walls. The niceties of the political mask
are discarded as Nixon warms to his task and talks turkey like you will never hear a politician talk.
The real reason for the Vietnam war? A cover for the CIA's heroin dealing operation in Laos. The identity of Deep Throat? Nixon himself: taking the only way out of a desperate situation that he can find, he leaks just enough to ensure the downfall of his own office and his own resignation - public disgrace, but secret honour.
This film, subtitled A Political Myth, shot by Robert Altman as a class project during his (1984) stay at the University of Michigan, and based on the 1983 play The Secret Honor (and Lost Testament) of Richard Nixon, benefits from a virtuoso performance by sole cast-member Philip Baker Hall, who also played Nixon in the stage version.
Though the film is effectively a 90 minute monologue, the consumate acting and pacing hold your interest until the end. Satire and dark humour are
not absent, but overwhelm neither the pathos of the subject's struggle to come to terms, nor the gradual buildup of the picture of endemic political corruption.
Despite the implausibility of Nixon's 'revelations' throughout, the political reality of a shadow government, directing things from behind the scenes for private and inscrutable ends, is convincingly insinuated through the highly plausible portrayal of Nixon's disintegrating personality--the over-the-shoulder trepidation, the guilt, and the knowing asides. We come to see Nixon as a pitiful individual, stuck inside a bigger game than he'd bargained on when he "sold his soul in Bohemian Grove."
The whole provides its own unique insight into the gulf, which must surely exist, between the public and private realities of high office. If Nixon's mythic fate is public disgrace and secret honour, we are left to conjecture that the 'normal' case is the exact reverse.