“For Real”

Tanner ’88 (1988). Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Garry Trudeau. Starring Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, Cynthia Nixon, Kevin J. O’Connor, Daniel Jenkins, Jim Fyfe, Ilana Levine, Matt Malloy, Wendy Crewson, Richard Cox, and lots of politicians and pundits, both real and imagined.

Practically every episode of the 11-part Tanner ’88 miniseries begins with a close-up shot of a cluttered table. Papers, cigarette butts, filled ashtrays, fast food wrappers, misplaced glasses, and much more detritus lies strewn all over these tables. We hear talk—lots of it, never less than two conversations at once—but we’re not immediately aware of who’s speaking, or about what. As the camera draws back slowly and moves about the room, we begin to get our bearings. Voices become known, recurring arguments and repeated jokes become familiar, and we realize that we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign. It’s hard to keep track of everything that’s going on, for both the participants and the audience. It’s hard enough for campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) to make sure that her candidate Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) does what he’s supposed to do, much less the rest of her staff, much less that everything operates smoothly.

And it is supposed to be a smooth operation, with a candidate with a clear message, a clear distinction from the rest of the Democratic candidates, and with—most significantly—a clear, clean media image. Jack Tanner is the “For Real” candidate, a progressive who will shoot straight with voters, who will represent the true liberal spirit of the Democratic Party. Every bit of clutter, no matter how small, trips up the manufacturing of this image.

So that establishing table shot is vital. Robert Altman shows the mess that’s at the heart of an American political campaign. By showing the narrative emerging from this trash, we see quickly how clutter becomes refined and coherent, but also that it’s still trash at its core. It doesn’t matter whether that table is in a hotel room, a campaign office, or on the side of the road—wherever the campaign goes, there’s an unstable mess as its base and center.

Tanner ’88 is prescient. Documentaries from The War Room to Control Room have concentrated on how politicians and news are increasingly defined in terms of image rather than message. Michael Moore’s caustic humor has its roots in Tanner—the revealing opening of Fahrenheit 9/11, in which Paul Wolfowitz spit-shines his hair and has makeup applied to his cheeks, comes straight from Altman’s masterpiece. The mean wit that pervades Tanner, supplied in part by screenwriter Garry Trudeau (the Doonesbury cartoonist), is so sharp that you can forgiven for believing the movie is a documentary rather than the mockumentary that it is.

The movie was shot guerilla-style, in a sort of real time that followed the actual headlines, talking points, and soundbites of the 1988 election year. Tanner shakes hands with Bob Dole, Bruce Babbitt, and Gary Hart. In a cool bit of legerdemain, he—a fictional character played by an actor—seems to engage in an actual debate with Reverend Jesse Jackson on TV. He shares a smoke and a beer with Linda Ellerbee. The narrative follows the arc of the campaign leading up to, and including, the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta, which means that everyone in the production—from Altman and Trudeau to the actors—were scrambling to adjust the film to tonight’s headlines.

I would say that I can’t imagine how chaotic this production must have been, but Altman actually gives us a pretty good idea. His central conceit—radical at the time, accepted as conventional wisdom today—is that the mechanics of a presidential campaign is more or less identical to a feature film production. And the end results in both cases have roughly equal measures of truth and bullshit. The campaign’s film director Deke Connors (Matt Malloy) claims that he’s using the Tanner campaign as an exercise in neo-realism; the joke gets funnier each time he says it, because he doesn’t realize that the whole thing is a circus-like farce. Poll manager Emile Berkoff (Jim Fyfe) is constantly tweaking his polling data; T.J. is always spinning the latest headline, sometimes before it’s printed; Andrea Spinelli (Ilana Levine) barks out appointment times like she’s calling out shot setups. Everyone’s concerned with getting the right angle, the right spin on Tanner, the right presentation (even down to the apparently useless fact that Tanner picks up his own suitcase at the airport), the right suit and posture and vocal inflection.

The only one who’s not concerned with the image of Jack Tanner is, well, Jack Tanner. Tanner doesn’t see or care about the convergence of politics and media. He sees the complex roots of societal ills, he understands the paradoxes, and he has complicated solutions that won’t fit on 30-second soundbites. When T.J. and Deek create an extraordinarily eye-catching and avant-garde set of Tanner promo spots, he complains that they’re fake and exploitative. Tanner is concerned with substance, and is contemptuous of anything that covers or slicks that up.

With a more sentimental filmmaker, this might be a sign that Jack is heroic. With Altman, Jack is slightly heroic, but he is, like most Democratic congressmen in the 1980s, disastrously ineffectual. Tanner’s moral courage is courageous; it’s what draws his staffers to work so hard for him. Altman slaps the candidate down hard. Tanner ’88 shows us savagely and hilariously that Tanner is a good man, and therefore has no business running for President.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about an essay Lance Mannion wrote almost a year ago. In particular, there’s this quote:

He was a great man. Great man are rarely good men. No good men, or women, want the power over other people that the great wield as a matter of course. This means that few good people ever achieve power because power is not given, it must be taken. This is the theme of The Lord of the Rings. If you want the ring, even to do good, you are corrupted from the first.

But if you do not have power your ability to do good is extremely limited.

So to do good, rather than just continue on as a nice, cheerful little hobbit simply staying at home and doing no harm, you have to acquire some power.

The good who manage to acquire power do not stay good very long. “Power corrupts” does not mean that all hobbits who touch the ring turn into Gollums. It means that once you have power, your ability to do good is always governed by the karmic equivalent of Newton’s law—for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Power is like a twelve foot long two by four on the shoulder of Stan Laurel. When Stan turns so he doesn’t hit the passing little old lady with the front end of the board, he whacks Ollie on the back of the head with the other end.

Mannion was writing about the recently deceased Pope John Paul II, but he might as well have written about Jack Tanner. He doesn’t understand what power is, how to acquire it through powerful media presentation, and he’s unprepared for how power could change him. He refuses to face up to what it means to run for president. As a tabloid reporter tells a Boston Globe columnist, “this is a person who wants to be the most powerful leader of the free world. That right there means we’re not dealing with a well-adjusted individual.” Tanner is good and wants to be well-adjusted, which means that he doesn’t quite want to be President. Every time Tanner fights the press and his own campaign team to maintain his dignity, he smacks a 2 x 4 against his campaign. His refusal to reduce his messages to postcard-sized quotes is noble, but it also means he can’t win.

Altman’s customary techniques—overlapping conversations, ironic humor, a constantly moving camera, lots of significant supporting actors, intertwining narratives—work brilliantly in Tanner ’88. He captures the chaos of a presidential race with wit and without fuss. It’s not quite graceful. The movie was shot on high-definition video, and its muddy colors and too-sharp outlines reveal video’s visual limitations. In Altman’s hands, though, limitations are triumphs. Everyone in Tanner obsessively watches TV, looking for nuances in a news report, in coverage of political protests and rallies. There’s a voyeuristic, erotic charge that Altman and Trudeau understand—more than one person here equates the political process with good sex. They’re always commenting on how something will look best for TV. The American political arena, says Altman, is set on a constantly operating television soundstage. So why shouldn’t it look like it?

The campaign process has only become more televisual since 1988, but Tanner’s humor makes it a political satire that still has bite. The hairstyles and fashions might seem out of date but, unfortunately, nothing else does. Tanner’s original campaign slogan, before he changes it to “For Real,” is “The Future Is Now.” No kidding.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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