On the 25th anniversary of its debut on HBO, Phil Concannon looks back at Tanner 88.
While campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of the 1988 primary, Republican Presidential hopeful Bob Dole ran into an unfamiliar Democrat candidate. Dole did not immediately recognise this congressman and his daughter but he certainly was aware of the cameras surrounding them, and so the two men exchanged greetings like old pals, smiled, and wished each other well before going their separate ways. That might sound like a mundane incident, nothing more than a footnote to that year’s Presidential race, but there was something unusual about one of those two men. Jack Tanner was not a real politician. In fact, Jack Tanner was not even a real person.
Robert Altman has always enjoyed taking characters out of the fictional realm and allowing them to rub shoulders with people from the real world. Nashville and The Player both featured a host of musicians and actors appearing as themselves, and his 1994 film Prêt-à-Porter was shot during Paris Fashion Week, allowing an extraordinarily eclectic collection of celebrities to wander in front of his camera. But Altman’s most audacious blending of fact and fiction is his HBO TV series Tanner ’88. This show, scripted by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, created a fake Presidential candidate for the 1988 race, surrounded him with aides, strategists and journalists, and sent him out on the campaign trail alongside the real candidates. Actually, perhaps “real” isn’t the right word to use there, as by the end of this unique series, you’ll wonder if the politicians vying for the White House are any more authentic than Altman and Trudeau’s creation.
Tanner ’88 takes us inside a political campaign to expose the manipulation, spin and hype that goes into creating a candidate who could actually win an election. As played by Altman regular Michael Murphy, Jack Tanner certainly looks the part, with his Kennedy-like good looks and easygoing manner, but the 11 episodes of Tanner ’88 detail the making of a modern politician. In the hour-long pilot episode, the Tanner campaign is struggling to gain any momentum, until an impassioned impromptu speech delivered by Tanner to his aides in a hotel room is caught on camera, giving his team a new angle to work with. They come up with the slogan “For real,” but while he is presented as an honest, real candidate, we are privy to the focus groups, training sessions and myriad minor adjustments that are slowly shaping him into something else. As Tanner wearily says halfway through the series, “I feel like I’m becoming an innocent bystander in my own campaign.”
The 1980s was not a good decade for Robert Altman. After ending the 70s with the unsuccessful Quintet, A Perfect Couple and HealtH, the disastrously received big-budget flop Popeye left him in the filmmaking wilderness. He made tiny movies, stage plays, operas, anything to make ends meet, but he seemed resigned to being at odds with the American film business of the day. “I can’t get anything made at all in this community [Hollywood],” he said in early 1988, “I don’t even have an agent. I don’t bother to go talk to them. I won’t even send a piece of material out to them because I know it’s pointless.” Tanner ’88 came about because Trudeau, unsure whether he wanted to write HBO’s ambitious project, stipulated that he would only come on board if they got Altman to direct. To his surprise, they met that condition, and in retrospect it’s clear that Robert Altman is really the only man who really could have directed it.
In typical Altman fashion, Tanner ’88 consists of a large cast and offers a variety of contrasting viewpoints. Altman hired actors who he had worked with or – in the case of Pamela Reed – wanted to work with, and he instructed Trudeau to write characters for them to play. The magnificent Reed is tough campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh; Matt Malloy is intrusive cameraman Deke Connors; Kevin J. O’Connor is cynical reporter Hayes Haggerty; Cynthia Nixon is Tanner’s forthright daughter Alex. Each episode is built around some specific plot point or set-piece, but for the most part Tanner ’88 feels like a story that is simply happening, with Altman’s endlessly roving camera picking out key details and lines of dialogue. Trudeau admits that he and Altman were winging it in the opening weeks, writing scenes as they filmed and sometimes delivering the show one hour before airtime, without giving any HBO executives the chance to see it. Their decision to follow the Presidential race stride for stride ensured that their narrative had to react to events as they happened, and this approach yielded some of Tanner ’88‘s most vivid moments, such as Bruce Babbitt or Kitty Dukakis (then a potential First Lady) being drafted in for memorable cameos.
Remarkably, from a show that was assembled in such an ad hoc fashion, what emerges in Tanner ’88 is one of the most persuasive and compelling portraits of contemporary politics in American film or television. The eventful nature of Tanner’s campaign may stretch credulity, but the way in which he and his team react to every setback and opportunity rings true, as does Murphy’s exceptional lead performance. He plays Tanner as an intelligent and honest man who genuinely wants to affect positive change, and whose frequent grandstanding gestures are driven by a real sincerity, but he is forced to compromise his ideas the further he goes down the political road, to reshape himself into the man his team believes voters want him to be. Some of the references and issues being discussed here may give you the idea that Tanner ’88 is a dated piece of work, but its depiction of a political process in which personality is valued over ideas, and moderation over conviction, is still strikingly relevant.
“In my mind, Tanner ’88 was the most creative work I’ve ever done – in all films and theatre,” Robert Altman once said, and he certainly appeared to be in his element as the series drew to its close. The penultimate episode Boiler Room, shot on location at the Democratic National Convention, is an extraordinary piece of work, as Tanner’s team frantically make deals and explore any opportunity to push their man back into contention. It’s a terrific finale for a series that improved as it progressed, as the actors settle into their roles and Altman and Trudeau found a rhythm that worked, but Altman didn’t intend it to end there. He and Trudeau hoped to film three or four more episodes running right up the election itself, but HBO pulled the series, leaving the question of whether Tanner would run as a third party independent hanging as a tantalising cliffhanger.
Jack Tanner’s campaign might have stalled just before the finish line, but the fact that this entirely fictional character could rub shoulders with real candidates and emerge as arguably the most rounded and plausible figure ensures that Tanner ’88 stands as one of TV’s most remarkable and accomplished experiments. When Tanner ’88 was broadcast again in 2004, the cast provided in-character introductions to each episode, and Tanner’s intro to the series finale is a fitting summation of the series: “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 say that without any bitterness or cynicism. I like how our electoral process works, I teach it, but the people who succeed in politics are not like you and me…especially me.”