Back in the early Nineties, Tanner ’88 was the movie Robert Altman generally cited as the best work of his career. He has revised his estimate since then, after 1993 often naming his Raymond Carver–inspired ensemble drama Short Cuts or sometimes simply whatever film he has completed most recently.
But Altman’s continued commitment to the Tanner project confirms that Tanner ’88 remains close to his acid heart. (In 2003, he completed new episode introductions for the Sundance Channel, and he is at work on a follow-up program.) From dozens of offbeat little gems and acknowledged classics generated over five decades of filmmaking, Altman still puts this slashing multiepisode political satire, written by Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, at the top of the list with the legendary Nashville, the icon-smashing M*A*S*H, the moody critics’ favorite McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and even those “forgotten films” and “runts of my litter” he occasionally defends, such as Brewster McCloud and Quintet.
Tanner ’88, broadcast on HBO in mostly half-hour segments during the 1988 campaign season, is a sort of trompe l’oeil video chronicle of the constantly surprising presidential fight of an obscure, very liberal, Michigan Democratic congressmen named Jack Tanner. It was a series made up while it was happening, fiction promiscuously mingling with life, actors cozily hobnobbing with their real-life counterparts, the show both parodying the nightly news and sometimes appearing on it.
Despite his nonexistence, Tanner (perfectly incarnated by long-time Altman trouper Michael Murphy, the political smoothie of Nashville) proved viable in ways that real-life candidates might envy. On a shoestring budget, he socialized with Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Pat Robertson, and Bruce Babbitt, created a sensation during an apparent debate with Jesse Jackson, attended the 1988 convention in Atlanta, and finally became the subject of a moving last-minute petition for support by no less than Kitty Dukakis.
The primary joke of Tanner ’88, technically and ideologically, is that a completely fictional character could fit in so easily with actual people that they ended up clamoring to share his space: Ralph Nader, Art Buchwald, Studs Terkel, and Gloria Steinem all agreed to serve in Tanner’s cabinet. “For real” is Tanner’s campaign slogan, and it is a double-edged sword—like the maddeningly inane jingle “Exercise Your Right to Vote!” that threads its way multifariously through the six hours.
A “mockumentary” is what Altman called Tanner ’88—a term that has gained greater currency since. But the series isn’t exactly a pastiche or a parody in the style of Zelig, This Is Spinal Tap, Bob Roberts (that very Tanner influenced satire by Player star Tim Robbins), or Chris Guest’s more recent Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind. Trudeau wrote Tanner in discrete scenes—there’s a comic-panel form to the dialogues, many of which end in Trudeau’s characteristically ironic cappers—but Altman’s use of video, with metallic, lusterless lighting and wandering camera movements (by Altman’s Player cinematographer-operator Jean Lepine) “read” to us as TV reality.
So Tanner ’88 becomes a devastating critique of the relationship between TV and American politics. What it says, finally, is that there isn’t much reality in our politics, especially what we perceive on TV, and that, to a large extent, political contests today are battles for the control of those perceptions. Satire and its object become indistinguishable. “George Bush,” “Ronald Reagan,” and “Michael Dukakis” were in a sense as concocted as Tanner, as are today’s “John Kerry,” “Howard Dean,” “Bill Clinton,” and that most amazing of all political comedy creations, “George W. Bush.”
Altman is right. Tanner ’88 probably is his key work. It consolidates all his political and social concerns. It’s an ultimate “ensemble” movie. Its corrosive humor and eccentric characters are right to his taste, and so is its sense of being a living organism, gaining texture as it goes along. Most important of all, Tanner ’88 predicted the future of electronic media politics, if not necessarily the kind of clowns it would take to master it.
Tanner is obviously the kind of movie Altman would like to be making all the time, and, indeed, he and Trudeau offered to run Jack in ’92. It’s a shame that HBO didn’t underwrite the campaign again back then: TV and film masterpieces aren’t that easy to come by. And the “for real” candidate still has lots to offer in an era when electoral politics seems less and less real, more and more a figment of somebody’s demented imagination. What wouldn’t we all give today for a four-cornered debate on the economy, political honesty, and “weapons of mass destruction” among Bush, Kerry, Nader—and Jack Tanner?
Michael Wilmington is a film critic for the Chicago Tribune.