Scott Bushnell

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Tanner '88 Review


Very Good
Originally made as a series for broadcast on HBO during the 1988 presidential primary season, Robert Altman's Tanner '88 charts the unsuccessful presidential bid of a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?

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