Tanner '88 Movie Review

Originally made as a series for broadcast on HBO during the 1988 presidential primary season, Robert Altman's Tanner '88 charts the unsuccessful presidential bid of a fictional Michigan congressman named Jack Tanner (played by Altman stalwart Michael Murphy), beginning with the New Hampshire primary and continuing through the Democratic National Convention. The series was written by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau on an episode-by-episode basis in order to stay abreast of actual developments in the '88 campaign; it ran for 11 episodes then and is currently slated for a mini-update of four new episodes. And just in time for the upcoming elections, the Criterion Collection has made the entire series available on DVD.

Politics have changed in the past 16 years - they had to have, right? - but the first thing that strikes you upon revisiting Tanner '88 today is how familiar this whole circus seems. Squint your eyes, change the names - throw in, say, a Dick Cheney and remove a Bob Dole or two - and the experience of watching Tanner '88 seems eerily close to watching current campaign coverage on CNN. In a clever, recently filmed introduction to the first episode (one of these new intros appears before each of the 11), Tanner remarks in a modern "interview" that the business of campaigning changed after that year. After '88, he says, "the curtain on [candidates'] private lives got pulled back... In '88 Johnny Carson might have done a couple of slightly risque jokes about Hart. But ten years later Jay Leno is doing six blowjob jokes a night on Clinton." Except that the candidate is make-believe, everything about this sentiment sounds authentic. Political campaigns did indeed move closer to show business; the only question is when?

If it was '88, America could have done worse than to have Robert Altman on hand as unofficial diarist of the change. The maker of M.A.S.H., Nashville, and The Player is a natural early pick when the game is observing the foibles of politics and society. The necessarily large cast of characters, the broad palette a limited-run series provides, and the inherently extemporaneous nature of life on the campaign trail all play directly into the director's established strengths. And Altman's satiric sensibility is such that the unadorned facts of a presidential campaign might almost serve his purposes presented straight, but they needn't. Tanner '88's jokes - from the broad to the slyly conceptual - begin with the candidate's slogan; his buttons and bumper stickers read "For real.", although obviously nothing about this fictional candidate is. As actual contenders in the actual '88 presidential campaign appear in the film and interact with Tanner for Altman's rolling cameras (Pat Robertson is the first and many more follow), this slogan takes on a deeper, disorienting resonance. For real? In American politics, Altman says, nothing is.

One change the past 16 years have seen is the refinement of the "mockumentary" as a genre, and this difference is obvious the minute Tanner '88 rolls. The film (shot by sometime Altman collaborator Jean Lépine) walks an uneasy line between cinema vérité and straightforward filmmaking, and for the most part the footage never finds a comfortable tone. This kind of cinematic counterfeit has long since been perfected by others: on the one hand, there's the immediate, faux vérité that we find in Man Bites Dog or The Blair Witch Project, filmmaking that pretends to have been shot on the spot; on the other we have the satiric "project" documentaries, films such as Christopher Guest's Best in Show or A Mighty Wind, that shoot their phony material straight. Tanner '88 commits to neither approach. It aims for the feel of reporting, as though it were capturing a candid, unguarded portrait of Tanner and his staff and of the sometimes ugly mechanics of his campaign, but a surfeit of camera angles, brief takes, and impossible access (many a hotel room tryst appears on camera) destroys the illusion. Of course, Altman is making the point, in Tanner '88, that the video camera is ubiquitous in modern politics; still, no effort is made to account for the presence of cameras, even in situations where there are unlikely to be any. The result is that the film often feels strangely staged. We expect to read Tanner '88 as a documentary, an expectation heightened by the quality of its video images. But the camerawork and editing frustrate this reading in every scene.

The good news is that you get used to it and, by the time all six hours have passed, your investment in the material is likely to be substantial. (Another minor complaint is that watching Tanner '88 outside the context of broadcast cable makes some of the scenes feel as though they could be trimmed.) For those of us who love Altman, the series provides a cornucopia of small joys, and the concept behind it, after all, is ideally suited to the man. It's frightening to consider how easily Jack Tanner, a phantom politician and a creation of the entertainment industry, could move undetected in the real political arenas Altman lampoons. That's a testament to Altman and Trudeau, but it's a testament with a scary aspect to it, too.


Tanner '88 Rating

" Good "

Rating: NR, 1988


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