Sunday, October 24, 2004

#258: Tanner '88

Robert Altman and Gary Trudeau collaborated on this HBO series, which follows a fictional presidential candidate through the Democratic primaries, from New Hampshire to the convention floor in Atlanta. Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy, who you might remember from Magnolia or Nashville) is a left-of-center candidate who goes to real campaign events throughout, from a meeting with a community group in the projects of Detroit to a fundraiser in Los Angeles. The joke is, they actually followed the primary campaign very closely, and so Tanner meets with all kinds of people who were players that year, from Bob Dole to Kitty Dukakis. In fact, it seems like Altman ambushed several of these people—Pat Robertson seems to have no idea who Tanner is, but he shakes his hand and wishes him luck.

The production values on this show are pretty terrible—it’s all shot on video using hand-held cameras. Apparently it was a very rushed and it looks it—Altman talks at one point about waiting anxiously by the fax machine for new plot points from Trudeau, who was writing at the last minute so he could respond to current events (and they do a pretty good job of this). It has that cheap-video sheen to the colors, which I find very hard to watch. And it’s typical Altman style on the sound mix, too, by which I mean muddy and confused; I found it easier to follow at many points if I had the subtitles on.

The acting is kind of suprisingly bad for such a good cast. Michael Murphy's consistently good, but a lot of it looks like improv that wasn't rehearsed enough. Which is probably exactly what it was. Cynthia Nixon is in this, looking about 14 (she would have just turned 22). Pamela Reed does a pretty good job too, as Tanner's campaign manager. The rest I could take or leave.

The fun of this isn't the actors, though, it's the background of the real campaign. There are some things that I think would have made more sense in 1988 (I have a copy of What It Takes, so I should know more about that year, but the fact is I've started it three times and never made it to page 100, so that's probably not going to happen). Anyway, I get the sense there are in-jokes. For example, at the New Hampshire campaign stops, Al Haig's supporters are always drunk and running through the hotels wreaking frat-boy-style havoc. No idea what that's about, but I like the sound of it.

There's also at least one secret history-type connection: After dropping out of the real race, Bruce Babbit did an extended cameo in which he gives Tanner advice on continuing to run; they both talk about how artificial the other candidates seem. Babbit says that he thinks that someone should ask one of them what the price of a quart of milk was, that none of them would know; they don't deal with that part of the world at all anymore. Four years later, somebody baffled Paul Tsongas at a campaign stop with that very question (I think he asked about a gallon, not a quart, but still). I'd like to think the questioner (some anonymous New Hampshire resident) saw Tanner '88 back in the day. Other cameos, all of whom are playing themselves: Jesse Jackson, Chris Matthews, Michael Kinsley, Ralph Nader, Gloria Steinem, Rebecca De Mornay, and Waylon Jennings. And those are just the ones I recognized. Like Wonkette says, there's famous, and then there's famous for Washington.

The show's not just a parade of cameos, though—although most of the show isn't especially moving or convincing, it does have a few scenes that are pretty amazing. The one that got to me most has Michael Murphy and Cynthia Nixon on the convention floor in Atlanta while they're still setting up, before the delegates arrive. He says something like, "We made it, honey," and she says "We sure did, dad." Then the camera zooms out as Tanner walks across the floor and climbs up on the still-under-construction podium: as he goes, in the background you hear exerpts from famous speeches by Democrats past: FDR, Adlai Stevenson (this one I can't find on the net, but it's the one where he talks about being governed at last by reason and by law), LBJ, Kennedy, and Cuomo, from just four years earlier. Anyway, I've linked to the speeches, but the passages themselves are pretty choice; e.g., here's the part of Cuomo's speech they use:

We believe as Democrats, that a society as blessed as ours, the most affluent democracy in the world's history, one that can spend trillions on instruments of destruction, ought to be able to help the middle class in its struggle, ought to be able to find work for all who can do it, room at the table, shelter for the homeless, care for the elderly and infirm, and hope for the destitute. And we proclaim as loudly as we can the utter insanity of nuclear proliferation and the need for a nuclear freeze, if only to affirm the simple truth that peace is better than war because life is better than death.

Oh, also, this series contains the worst wedding toast ever, given by Tanner's estranged father at his son's wedding; it's something like this:

100 years ago, after a particularly grueling session of Parliament, William Gladstone shouted across the aisle to his arch-rival Benjamin Disraeli, "You'll end up on the gallows or with venereal disease!" Disraeli retorted, "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress." I bring this up because...

And then somebody cuts him off. Too, too droll. I leave you with a bit of Tanner in 2004, talking about losing:

There are no moral victories in politics. There's only winning. And if you have even the slightest doubt about that, you shouldn't be in it. You should move aside for those who care enough to do what it takes to win.

I didn't used to think that was true, but this election I'm not sure.


Lewis Saul said...

Just curious why you broke away from your chronology based on Criterion spine number?

Anonymous said...

I also really, really liked Harry Anderson's performance. He seemed like a character straight out of Trudeau, and came in just when my interest was flagging, as I recall.

Matthew Dessem said...


This was the first one I wrote about; it had just been released on DVD and I wanted to check it out. After that I started at the beginning.

Matthew Dessem said...


It's been so long since I saw this that I don't remember his performance. I should watch this again.

Anonymous said...

Why couldn't I have read this before I dropped forty? They never say things like "with all the production values of America's Funniest Home Videos" on the back cover. Anyway, great work author.

Unknown said...

Anybody else notice Bela Fleck playing in the background on one of the campaign stops?