May 1, 2005
Just in time for the November U.S. elections, the good folks at Criterion have released Robert Altman’s little-seen (yet influential) Tanner ’88 (1988), an eleven-episode mini-series that he created with Gary Trudeau (of Doonesbury fame). Done for then fledgling HBO and shot on video, it was an attempt to critique and satirize the political landscape in America at the time. Sixteen years later, it is still relevant.
Tanner ’88 is a mockumentary that follows fictional Democratic Presidential hopeful Jack Tanner (Murphy) as he campaigns throughout the country and places him and a small cast of actors against real politicians also running for office. Altman employs a cinema verite style of filmmaking that gives each episode a fast and loose, guerilla filmmaking vibe that has the spontaneous feel of real life.
Shooting on video must have felt natural to Altman who uses it in his trademark fashion, complete with overlapping dialogue and restless camerawork that focuses on someone for awhile before moving onto someone else. This appears to be random at first but once you settle into this approach it becomes apparent that Altman has a definite plan.
In hindsight, Tanner comes across as a John Kerry-esque candidate. He’s good-looking, confident politician with an idealistic streak who genuinely wants to help people and make a difference. However, by the end of the series, Tanner is chewed up and spit out by the system and gets to a point where he doesn’t even know what he believes anymore because so many people have taken a piece out of him on the way up. It is the age old parable of absolute power corrupting.
Tanner ’88 shows how much a politician’s image is manipulated for maximum effect on the public-at-large: the more appealing to the largest number of people, the better chance a candidate has of winning. We live in a sound bite culture and this is not conducive to complex issues (like health care, abortion or same sex marriages) that cannot be distilled into digestible chunks for consumption. And yet, our politicians try anyway.
Let’s face it: elections are popularity contests. The candidate who comes off the most appealing will win. That’s why nine times out of ten a Bill Clinton will beat a Ross Perot. What real counts—the issues—has taken a distant back seat and Tanner ’88 exposes this truism with startling clarity.
The series also has fun lampooning the media. At one point, Tanner’s daughter, Alex (Nixon), pops her head in to tell her father that USA Today is on the phone asking: if he was a fruit or vegetable, which one would he be? It is these kinds of absurdities that makes Tanner ’88 such a delight.
Perhaps most interesting is that Altman and Trudeau created a credible candidate—so much so that he was able to seamlessly mix with real people like Bob Dole. However, the show is as much about Tanner as it is about the people around him: his campaign manager and the reporters covering his run for the White House).
The Sundance Channel bought the rights to Tanner ’88 and ran the entire series earlier this year. They brought back Altman, Trudeau, and key cast members to record brand new intros for each episode. Tanner is now a university professor who reflects, with some bitter resentment, on that fateful bid for the Oval Office.
There is also a fantastic 20-minute conversation between Altman and Trudeau. The writer talks about how working for a weekly deadline prepared him for working on the fly for the more spontaneous approach of Tanner ’88. He gives Altman credit for his masterful direction and his Cubist approach (i.e. multiple perspectives). It’s a spirited conversation with Trudeau being quite animated and Altman flattered by the former’s gushing praise.
Tanner ’88 is not just a fascinating snapshot of American politics in the late ‘80s. It holds up today because a lot of the same things are being said and a lot of the same things are being done. The people are still at the mercy of these double-talking politicians and Altman and Trudeau’s series zeroes in on this with absolute clarity. Despite its limited run when initially broadcast, it went on to inspire Tim Robbins’ scathing Republican satire, Bob Roberts (1992) and Steven Soderbergh’s short-lived TV show, K Street (2003), which also mixed actors with real politicians (and was also green-lighted HBO). This is a timely release well worth a look.