Even with questionable projects like Quintet and A Perfect Couple finding their ways into theaters in 1979 only to find his fortunes crater in 1980 with the underperforming Popeye and the mostly never-released HealtH, it would still appear that, on paper at least, Robert Altman’s sojourn away from the multiplexes from 1988 to 1992 was the absolute bottom of his long and illustrious career. For during this period he worked exclusively on projects envisioned for the small screen. Some of these were good as was the case with his adaptation of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court Martial,and some of these were the direct opposite of good as was the case with Basements, his adaptation of twin Harold Pinter pieces, “The Dumb Waiter” and “The Room.” But even on wobbly legs that could only be glimpsed in the living rooms across America, from this stretch of time also sprung Tanner ‘88, Altman’s absolute crowning achievement of the 1980’s and one of the greatest and most significant works of his entire career. If Altman’s Nashville is the greatest film about America, Tanner ‘88 is the greatest work about American politics.
Written by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau and directed by Altman (and advised by future Clinton advisor, Sydney Blumenthal), Tanner ‘88 was a wildly creative and incalculably influential eleven-episode miniseries that spans the course of six hours and was broadcast on HBO between February 15th and August 22nd in 1988. Fluctuating between the real-time cable news drama of the very real Democratic presidential primary of that year and the bustling, fictional world of Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), liberal idealist and one-time Michigan congressman now thrust into the maelstrom of a presidential campaign, Tanner ‘88 dissected American politics with skilled precision, blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction as Tanner and his dysfunctional campaign intermixed with real pols and press all the way up to the Michael Dukakis/Lloyd Bentsen-coronated convention in Atlanta.
By running a clear-intentioned but befuddled antique of a candidate in Jack Tanner, Altman was able to get in there to document American politics on the cusp of a new age of information; 24 hour cable news working overtime to numb the minds of many voters, causing them to tune out due to over-saturation. In doing so, Altman sends up the technical bugs that plague on-the-fly productions that occur in politics and live television such as roving optical titles that sometimes shuffled between multiple names before landing on the correct person who’s doing a shoot interview and miscommunications galore despite sitting atop a bank of telephones. Tanner ‘88’s shot-on-video foundation (lensed by longtime Altman camera operator, Jean Lepine) has all the artistic greyscale of a Gregory Dark porn from the same period but it doesn’t damage Tanner ‘88 in the slightest. Instead, it appropriately gives the piece an immediacy, underlying its theme of authenticity and emboldening its independent spirit while still retaining Altman’s busy and impeccable onscreen choreography.
As my old man was the executive director of the Oklahoma Democratic Party in 1976 and worked for many governors and twice as many gubernatorial campaigns so a whole lot of Tanner ‘88 registers with me as authentic, most especially Pamala Reed’s TJ Cavanaugh, erstwhile campaign manager of the Tanner operation. I have known so many folks just like her; hardened political professionals who have to constantly see one election cycle in the future to stay employed. Likewise, famous are stories like the New Hampshire couple in the opening episode; people who politicians chase for photo ops as the kind of salt of the earth individuals with whom one wants to be photographed around the kitchen table but, in reality, are political starfuckers who collect autographs and Polaroids of the various candidates who drift through their kitchen.
In terms of 1988, Jack Tanner predicts Bill Clinton by about four years. Hell, if not for Clinton’s more folksy backstory and a lasting marriage, there’s not much that separates Jack from the 42nd President. In some ways, Tanner is to Clinton what Monty Python’s Brian is to Jesus Christ. Only a single presidential cycle separates them but that cycle makes the world of difference. For Tanner is a candidate for the wrong era. Clinton would have been much more politically cynical about cutting a commercial that was surreptitiously shot from under a glass coffee table or taking advantage of a private pain for political advantage. What Tanner ‘88 gets to the heart of is how decent and flawed people with true convictions and a desire to act on behalf of the public good can be completely shut out by the decision-making process where it counts because of a media environment that feels like a foreign land where one can’t quite see all the cannibals and the want to crack through the facade of “making great television” is an absolute fool’s errand.
What Altman couldn’t have known is the funhouse mirror Tanner ‘88 creates in both his career and in American politics. Already disillusioned with eight straight years of Reagan which, to folks like Altman, was a more refined and dangerous and disingenuous Richard Nixon for the worn-out Boomer generation, he looks at a landscape rendered unrecognizable by the the ever blurring line that separates celebrity and politics and how the poisonous tabloid luridness seeped into our national bones. By pinpointing this moment in time in 1988 with the inevitable election of then-Vice President George H. W. Bush (which was like building an extra room onto the previous eight years), Altman both recalls the political seeds in 1975’s Nashville but also sets up his penultimate effort, Tanner on Tanner, where America finds herself staring down the next four years of another Bush administration in the absolute death throes of a media landscape that took root in 1988.
The best way to absorb Tanner ‘88 is via the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release (also featured on their streaming channel) the production of which coincided with the production of Altman’s Tanner on Tanner. In the Criterion set, each episode is bumpered with then-new introductions by the characters in the Tanner universe as they ruminated on the campaign’s failure and the sorry state of American politics that had gone rapidly downhill since the congressman’s ill-fated run during those halcyon days of the wheezing and waning Reagan administration. Now, almost 20 years after Tanner on Tanner, what seems recognizable in the world of campaigning is mostly bittersweet and nostalgic as more primitive forms of campaigning and decorum have been smashed to bits by social media and candidates fully immersed in demagoguery.
Also, framing Tanner ‘88 in the hindsight of 2004 creates a nifty, if tragic, historical window as we were then looking to avoid sliding into a second term of the ruinous George W. Bush administration. But in ‘04, as was the case in ‘88, we failed in our dodge and had to sit through four miserable years before Americans saw their hopes rise and lives flourish for eight more. In 2021, almost twenty years after the retrospection of 2004, Joe Biden, a supporting name on the crowded 1988 trail but never seen in Tanner ‘88, is now the very real President of the United States that are truly no longer all that united seeing that a good 15% of the population thinks his presidency is, in fact, a creation of the media.
Tanner ‘88 was highly influential on Steven Soderbergh’s K Street, a similar premium-channel series from 2004 in which a fictionally constructed world of political advisors collided with our very real political system. That show achieved about a week’s worth of heavy ink for the scripted part of the show, notably strategist James Carville’s feeding a line to Gov. Howard Dean, bleeding itself into an actual primary debate among the Democratic candidates which landed in Dean’s favor. I recalled this moment while watching a scene in Tanner ‘88 in which the then-recently dispatched Bruce Babbitt advises Tanner as they walk along the shores of the Potomac. Babbitt, a popular but boring governor of Arizona who was one of the first to drop out of the race in 1988, seems to understand the uphill battle ahead for bland but effective policy-makers like himself. His breakdown of the message to politicians? “I’m going to talk to you straight about our future and how Americans can get together and start solving problems instead of living in this kind of silver screen age of unreality.”
I think about that quote a lot these days.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain