Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Robert Altman's lengthy hour miniseries sounded like a smart-aleck liberal concept writ large -
create a fictional Presidential candidate (played by long-time Altman actor Michael Murphy)
and film him on the actual primary trail right along with the real candidates for office.
With his campaign slogan being the pointed remark "For real" the obvious gag was that
Jack Tanner the fake candidate would be just as real as the other media-created
political personalities on the sound-bite and handshake circuit, thus immediately tapping into
the fraud of American politics being more about appearance than substance.
With a snappy script by cartoonist Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury - at least that part of
the script that is actually scripted, as so much of the show was done on a catch-as catch-can
basis - Tanner '88 was a television hit that became a serious phenomenon. Real news programs
began to follow the fictional Jake Tanner's political progress as comment on the 'real' campaigns.
Suddenly Jack Tanner was 'cool,' and real politicians lined up to do guest bits on the show,
pretending to be interacting with Tanner's dark horse candidate amid all the confusion of the
Trudeau's political savvy and Robert Altman's ability to capture events on the fly add to the
credibility of the miniseries. The script sets up a collection of personalities within the
Tanner campaign. Pamela Reed is T.J. Cavanaugh, Tanner's
hardy campaign manager. Ilana Levine is a ditsy but earnest volunteer who can't keep up with
her quick-witted associates. Tanner has press contacts who
make mistakes, a media manager who churns out video propaganda that we get to see shaped and
battered by focus groups, and a bright-eyed college-aged daughter named Alex (Cynthia Nixon). She
at public events but steers him into ill-advised ideas like getting arrested at an anti-apartheid
rally. The campaign small-talk is particularly adept, and anyone who's ever had a background in
video production will love the accuracy of the material that centers on Tanner's ever-evolving
promo videos and television spots. The opening episode autopsies a campaign promo for its fatal
shortcomings - lame references to the candidate's family history, reaching for sympathy for a
daughter's fight with Hodgkin's disease, etc.
Tanner is long-separated from Alex's mother and is trying to maintain a clandestine relationship on
the road, a fact soon detected by the sharp reporter Hayes Taggerty (Kevin J. O'Connor). Tanner
thinks Taggerty is an enemy but couldn't be more wrong, as the acid-tongued newshound favors underdogs
and laments the fact that the American press has destroyed the country's best liberal politician,
Gary Hart, just for the sport of airing his personal life on the scandal sheet headlines.
It's a steeplechase of daily errors like busses breaking down and badly-timed run-ins with the
media. Harried reporter Molly Hark (Veronica Cartwright) can't seem to get a second of time with
the candidate and has to ask whether America needs a president who, from her perspective, always
runs away from cameras.
Every episode has plenty of multi-character dialogue scenes that mix Altman's penchant for vocal
chaos with Trudeau's yen for zippy one-liners. There are plenty of digs at 1988 personalities,
such as barely-a-candidate Al Haig's annoying frat-boy supporters. Each episode ends with a
cliffhanger event, such as a bogus assassination attempt that gets Tanner secret service protection,
a perk that makes him seem more like a winning ticket. The soap opera is kept to a minimum; neither
does the show center on the existential dilemma of candidacy as did Michael Ritchie's Robert Redford
movie The Candidate two decades earlier. Jack Tanner is a game guy and no quitter, and the
irony is that before the show finishes we'd rather elect him than any of the other clowns shaking
hands and kissing babies. And he's fictitious!
Among the real personalities (if real still has a meaning) with whom Tanner has convincing
encounters are Art Buchwald, Bob Dole (who has his own button-catcher, an inside joke), Kitty Dukakis,
Gary Hart, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, Pat Robertson, Gloria Steinem and Studs Terkel. In 1988
the miniseries convinced the liberal cognoscenti of America that politics had become a game dominated
competely by media images, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Conservative America had no appetite
for satiric irony, and remained loyal to the illusion of what passes for our democratic process.
Criterion's DVD of Tanner '88 has shown up just in time for the '04 (or the 'oh no!') election
showdown in a snappy two-disc set with eight hours of beautifully encoded television shows. Last year
Altman added intros to the programs for a re-showing on cable television, with key cast characters
commenting sixteen years later on the '88 experience when politics had not quite become the all-out
shark frenzy it resembles now. There's a new show with Tanner's daughter Alex considering
a campaign run, and Tanner '88 provides a fine setup for it. Being a Criterion disc, the
miniseries is a bit steeper in price than many television shows now available, but the image quality
here is better than several I've seen. Liner notes are provided by Michael Wilmington and Gary
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tanner '88 rates:
Supplements: Episode intros shot for the 2004 cable rebroadcast; conversation between
Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, essays by Michael Wilmington and Gary Kornblau
Packaging: Two discs in slim Keep case
Reviewed: October 13, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson