Judge Mike Pinsky thinks Jack Tanner is the funniest fictional presidential candidate [insert your own partisan joke here].
"The impertinent question. Where the hell would we be without it?"—Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy)
Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), former U.S. Senator from Michigan, is running for President. He is passionate, well connected, and committed to repairing the damage of Reaganomics. From the media-savvy farmers of New Hampshire to the floor of the Democratic National Convention, Tanner will prove that he is his own man, even to the chagrin of his campaign team, his daughter (Cynthia Nixon), and the American people. Tanner '88. For real.
Except that he is not.
Ever since the 1960 documentary Primary revealed to audiences the inner workings of a presidential campaign, satirists have waited to pounce. I remember when Dan Quayle remarked that he was inspired to enter politics after watching Robert Redford in The Candidate, seemingly oblivious to its arch lessons about the political process. I remember years of Doonesbury strips about the White House and the betrayal of '60s idealism.
In 1988, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau decided, with the help of upstart cable network HBO, to run a fake presidential candidate in order to satirize the political process. This was a contentious political season: Reagan's Teflon coating was beginning to thin, the result of an increasing economic downturn and continuing questions over Iran-Contra. George Bush (that would be the father, you young 'uns) was not a shoe-in as Reagan's successor. The Democratic Party was conflicted: Should it renew its '60s liberal base, or should it try harder to recapture moderates who leaned toward Reagan in the '80s?
This very tension is at the heart of the premise cooked up by Trudeau and curmudgeonly auteur Robert Altman. There is something almost quaint about Jack Tanner's campaign. Low-tech (no bloggers! no computer modeling!) and hands-on (watch Tanner flounder while making a speech about volunteerism in front of a quilting bee), this is strangely old-fashioned. Tanner is supposed to be a "real" person, not a political animal, so authentic in his humanism that his campaign has to steal bits of his improvised patriotism to craft an advertising campaign. In other words, Tanner is a candidate in spite of himself—and that is exactly the joke Trudeau and Altman try to get across.
But the satire never seems as sharp in this sense as the character scenes, especially the warm relationship between Tanner and his daughter Alexandra. Alex seems more focused than her father, who seems to be running just for something to do. Maybe the point is that a hapless, ordinary family man like Tanner is ill suited to this publicity war. At the end of Episode One it is revealed that the main reason he is running is simply for the sake of running, to "ask the impertinent question." And ultimately, that is probably why Trudeau and Altman ran this fictional candidate: to climb that Everest just because it was there.
As the series progresses through its eleven episodes, we track the antics of Tanner's campaign team, led by the crusty T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed). Occasionally, we switch to the antics of the press team assigned to follow Tanner, particularly a high-strung NBC correspondent (Veronica Cartwright). This is what Altman does best: follow an ensemble cast along various trajectories, and let the narrative threads attend to themselves. Garry Trudeau scripted the situations for the series, and some of the soap opera plot points seem to follow the structure of a Doonesbury cartoon at times (exposition, development, punchline, counterpunch). But the story works best when it seems more off-the-cuff, following the improvisational, overlapping style favored by Altman, where the dramatic structure looks more like a natural outgrowth of dialogue. For example, a subplot about Tanner's romance with a Dukakis campaign assistant feels jerky and forced (especially an attempt at farce with a wacky wedding sequence). But when Altman puts the fictional Tanner in a circle with real Detroit residents giving voice to their anger about the failed War on Drugs, or when Tanner gets advice during a morning jog from Bruce Babbitt, style and substance come together.
This fusion of satirical soap opera with reality show is shot by Altman on video, ostensibly in an effort to make this appear as a "documentary." There are too many self-conscious camera moves and edits to appear realistically raw, and some of the performances (apart from Altman regulars like Murphy) are too broad. Altman seems, as he often is, more interested in individual pieces of business than in constructing an overall story. The result is a show that shines a couple of scenes per episode, and seems to meander while waiting to get to those better moments.
Still, Altman is fond of the project, often citing it as one of his favorites. And Trudeau is proud as well of what at the time was a rather risky artistic effort. But how does all this look in 2004? When the Sundance Channel replayed Tanner '88 recently, the network brought cast and crew together to shoot brief introductions to each episode, in order to drum up buzz about a new Tanner on Tanner miniseries. Murphy, Nixon, and Reed all appear comfortable in their characters, although since I do not have Sundance, I cannot say whether the sequel series measures up.
As for Criterion's presentation of the original Tanner '88, I can say that I feel a little let down. I cannot fault Criterion for the video and audio quality of the production: Video tape from 1988 is going to look cheap on DVD, no matter how good the director might be. But if this project is so dear to Altman, where are all the extras? The only real extra (I do not count the new introductions, as they were already in the can from the Sundance Channel airing) is a 20-minute chat between Trudeau and Altman. This is mostly a mutual lovefest with a few insights into the creative process thrown in. Altman still favors Tanner among his many films due to its invention and realism. Trudeau describes Tanner as "decent but somewhat baffled." Altman describes himself as "a hopeful cynic."
What might have passed for "hopeful cynicism" in 1988, though, seems a bit mild these days. 1988 feels like such a long time ago. And in some way, Tanner '88 seems to have drifted to a far remove. In 1988, cable television was still a novelty for most people, and the idea that cable broadcasters might produce unique programming seemed rather counterintuitive. Pay cable was where B-movies languished, and attempts to bring audiences to cable needed to include something exploitative. For example, remember The Paper Chase? A cerebral failure on PBS for one season, the show wandered over to Showtime, where it survived for a couple more years by adding a dose of gratuitous nudity to the normally staid halls of Harvard Law School. On cable, you got to use naughty words and show naughty things—and audiences sort of expected a little of both for their subscription fees.
In this sense, Tanner '88 never fit into the HBO mold at the time. Now of course, HBO and its fellow cablers like to compete for Emmys and critical accolades, and a show like Tanner would get a green light in a second. The improvisational style (which often results in some clunky acting by the supporting players) is almost a tired premise. The incorporation of a fictional character into the real world, where Tanner can shake hands with Gary Hart and Bob Dole (although it does not seem clear that Dole knows why he is shaking hands with this guy), has created a whole generation of political insiders who think they are television stars. It is as if everything that made Tanner unique in 1988 has been spun off into shows that use the elements in a more polished (and in some cases successful) fashion. Even Garry Trudeau loved the mock campaign format so much that he put together a quite funny series of campaign commercials for gonzo politico Uncle Duke in 2000.
None of this invalidates the commentary that Tanner '88 is trying to make. But it might make newcomers to the series wonder what the fuss is all about.
If only we had more Jack Tanners to help the professional politicians get a sense of perspective. Tanner '88 is full of funny and even occasionally dramatic moments, even if it rarely fulfills the promise offered by such usually reliable talents as Trudeau and Altman. Fans of both artists will likely want to pick this up. And if you are part of that growing subculture of politics geeks—you know, the ones that have to read every Michael Moore or Bill O'Reilly book and follow National Journal stories like old ladies follow soap operas—you will probably watch this series with a knowing smile. But like so many forgotten presidential candidates (Alf Landon, anyone?), Jack Tanner and Tanner '88 no longer seem as fresh or as timely as we once thought.
Polls indicate a downturn for Criterion due to its lazy handling of this series. Hopefully, there will be a bounce from the convention of other recently released Robert Altman films. But we are still awaiting results from our exit polling.
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