Though “Tanner ‘88” is not a brand-new release, and first appeared on cable TV (HBO, to be exact) over 25 years ago, the Criterion Collection edition at Kent District Library is new to our collection, and so merits a review in this space. Directed by Robert Altman, and written by Gary Trudeau of “Doonesbury” fame, “Tanner ‘88” strikes just the right tone of satire and seriousness, and there’s no doubt this is due to Altman and Trudeau’s collaboration. As anyone who has watched even a handful of Altman’s films would know, his approach was almost always one that didn’t shy away from humor, but that at the same time grappled with serious underlying issues. The “issue” in this case is the nature of the system that produces our American president. Though filmed (on videotape, thus giving it an even more news-like quality) during the 1988 campaign—ancient history for many people nowadays—the series, produced in 11 half-hour episodes, seamlessly melds footage of real candidates—Bruce Babbitt, Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson–with that of Jack Tanner, a fictional Democratic Congressman from Michigan who is running on a liberal political ticket and juggling numerous crises as he begins in snowy New Hampshire and finishes at the August Democratic convention in Atlanta. Using a documentary approach (there’s even a man with a video camera hovering around the main characters), Altman’s world of primaries and politics is rich in layers, particularly in his typical use of multiple conversations on the soundtrack and his revealing look into the back room maneuvers of political campaigns, including the serendipitous origin of Tanner’s campaign TV ad, shot through the top of a glass coffee table. Ending with the Democratic convention gives the series a thrilling but doomed sense of how things work at such events, and wraps it up in a thoroughly believable, though perhaps heightened, way.
Posted by: David