Tanner 88
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The presidential campaign trail is the original television reality show; however, it has become so overly scripted that little genuine reality seeps into the process anymore. Director Robert Altman (of Nashville and M*A*S*H fame) and writer Garry Trudeau (of Doonesbury fame) tackled this subject in Tanner '88 by manufacturing their own presidential candidate, a little-known Michigan congressman named Jack Tanner (played by Michael Murphy), and sending him out on the campaign trail to rub elbows with Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, and others. Here, satire blends with its object. No longer is art holding up a mirror to society; here, art is co-joined with reality.

Tanner '88 is part guerrilla filmmaking in which the filmmakers made it up as they went along, putting real-life politicians into manufactured situations and soliciting performances on-the-fly (as when Bruce Babbitt bestows his political wisdom upon Tanner as they walk around the reflecting pool at the Jefferson Memorial); Tanner '88 is also part political drama with actors giving shape to Trudeau's scripted backstage maneuvers in free-form scenes where scripted lines and improvisations share equal time.

Taking the form of a campaign-trail diary, recorded in 30-minute episodes for 11 weeks, Tanner '88 shows us the reality that real-life politicians carefully try to deny from their own campaigns. Here, we see the awkward moments--as when the divorced Tanner struggles to separate himself from the ever present reporters for a clandestine meeting with his girlfriend (who also happens to be a political advisor for one of Tanner's opponents) or when a test group skewers Tanner's new campaign video as artificial and contrived (and Tanner's campaign team becomes defensive). Paradoxically, Tanner's campaign is the most real thing that we see in Tanner '88. The real candidates are artificial whereas we see Tanner with all his warts intact. His campaign uses the slogan "Tanner '88: For real," which suggests that the fictional existence of Tanner may arguably be as real as the contrived existence of the genuine candidates.

Created for HBO is 1988, Tanner '88 is one of the most audacious programs in the history of cable television. As director Altman and writer Trudeau describe during an interview on The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Tanner '88, Altman frequently delivered the final product just minutes before broadcast time, which frequently allowed HBO no opportunity to preview what they would soon be broadcasting into millions of homes across the country. The immediacy of these broadcasts heightened the show's illusion of reality and emphasized how campaign-trail reporting had become subservient to the candidates.

Tanner '88 is sometimes clumsy and unconvincing, but when it hits its mark, as when Tanner meets a group of inner-city parents and listens as they talk about the problems they face on a day-to-day basis, the show becomes transcendent, an example of how powerful television can be when filmmakers take chances with content and form.

The Criterion Collection's DVD release of Tanner '88 comes complete with the new episode introductions that Altman filmed in 2003 for the Sundance Channel, featuring original cast members Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed (who played Tanner's campaign manager, T.J. Cavanaugh), and Cynthia Nixon (of Sex in the City fame, who played Tanner's daughter, Alex). In addition, the DVD features the aforementioned video conversation between series creators Altman and Trudeau. This short documentary provides a fascinating view into the production of Tanner '88. Trudeau functions like the host, directing questions at Altman and elaborating on his own involvement with the show.

Altman has frequently said that Tanner '88 is one of the best things he's ever done, and I tend to agree with him. It's not as consistently superior as The Player or McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but it captures an urgency that you rarely see in feature films. This is television at its best.

Tanner '88 is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. Special features: episode introductions featuring original cast members created for Sundance Channel's 2004 broadcast of Tanner '88 and a new video conversation between series creators Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.

Photos: © 1988 Sandcastle Productions, Inc. All rights reserved.