They believed in Jack Tanner

Times Staff Writer

Sixteen years or four presidential elections ago, director Robert Altman and cartoonist-writer Garry Trudeau brought forth upon Home Box Office a new sort of TV miniseries, “Tanner ‘88,” which followed the fortunes of Democratic presidential hopeful Jack Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) as he vied for his party’s nomination.

Written, improvised, shot, edited and aired as the actual campaign unfolded, made on location from the New Hampshire primaries to the Democratic Convention with numerous cameo appearances by players from that real world, it’s part sitcom, soap opera, family drama, political satire, travelogue and documentary. Running six hours over 11 episodes, it is Dickensian in its sweep and social concerns but too peculiarly American in tone and subject, after all, to be called Dickensian.

“Nobody quite knew what shelf to put it on,” Altman says now of the series, which the Sundance Channel is giving a long overdue reairing on Tuesdays (Tuesday being, of course, the traditional day to vote). Each episode is preceded by a newly shot introduction, featuring interviews with Tanner, who has since become a history professor; his former campaign manager (Pamela Reed); and socially conscious daughter (Cynthia Nixon, later famous for “Sex and the City”). They subtly extend the story and put the 1988 campaign in perspective. Yet the original film speaks to the current Democratic race just as well. “It’s pretty much the same cast of characters, isn’t it?” Altman observes.


Tanner’s 1988 journey takes him from winter to summer, from snowbound New England to sunny Southern California, from quilting bees to swimming pools, from Opryland to a day-care center where he introduces toddlers to the term “tax abatement.” Along the way he meets Gary Hart, Pat Robertson and Bob Dole; appears at actual demonstrations; discusses campaign strategy over cocktails with Washington journalists Hodding Carter, Chris Matthews and Sidney Blumenthal (credited as the series’ “political consultant”); and gets a makeover from the late public-speaking guru Dorothy Sarnoff. Guerrilla editing slices him into a TV debate with his opponents, including Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis. At the same time, there’s a domestic drama with his daughter and girlfriend, and various threads of trouble with his Doonesburyesque campaign staff and the journalists in his press pool.

“We didn’t blindside anybody,” Altman says of the celebrity cameos. “We told everybody who we were and what we were doing. I’m not sure they all understood it. But those candidates running around, they’re looking for cameras. I remember in Tennessee we wanted Al Gore, and his people came back to us and said, ‘We’ve checked your ratings, and you don’t reach enough people for us.’ ”

Looking for authenticity

HBO first approached Trudeau, whose 1984 stage piece “Rap Master Ronnie” it had recently mounted for television, to do some sort of new political series, and Trudeau then approached Altman. The director, who had “worked hard” for Adlai Stevenson in younger days, had a long interest in politics. He had already metaphorically dealt with a presidential campaign in his 1980 film “HEALTH,” had addressed the creation of public personality in “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” (1976), and had more recently directed a screen version of Philip Baker Hall’s Richard Nixon monologue, “Secret Honor.”

Though “Tanner” is far too eventful a piece to easily summarize, it is fair to say that its main theme is the construction of “authenticity.” (“For real” becomes the slogan of Tanner’s campaign, after an aide videotapes him in an impromptu rant that outclasses his prepared texts.) Tanner feels adrift in all this -- “an innocent bystander in my own campaign,” as he tells former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt as they walk accompanied by Secret Service agents near the Jefferson Memorial. (Altman contacted Babbitt to appear the day after Babbitt pulled out of the primaries. “That [scene] was not scripted,” he says. “We told Bruce, ‘You can deliver any message you want.’ ” Babbitt is quite eloquent -- presidential, one could say -- on the necessity of risk and the “silver screen style of unreality” that afflicts the nation, and he gets off a funny line about makeup.)

That candidate Tanner is already an invention gives the theme a weird double resonance, as do the assertions of various real-world politicos that “I believe in Jack Tanner, I believe in him” or “I’ve known Jack Tanner for years, he seems real to me.”

Tanner is not a creature of liberal wish fulfillment, like Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet on “The West Wing” -- if only because he is not going to win. Rather, he’s a sincere and principled, fitfully effectual and somewhat hapless candidate. “Things happen to this man, people,” Reed’s campaign manager says. “He is constantly being taken over by events.” Which, indeed, describes the series itself, which Altman and Trudeau steered to accommodate the events and obstacles of the real world, from the election to the weather.

“Everything else I’d done in television and theater and movies was all based on other work done before me,” Altman says. “ ‘Tanner’ I thought was really new territory. There wasn’t any reality TV then. We went to New Hampshire, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, Nashville and Atlanta -- so we covered a lot of territory -- and we had to take what we found there. We had outlines -- Garry was not on the trail with us, he was in New York, and he would just fax us and a lot of the script would be done the night before. We would always have enough script that we knew if we didn’t find anything, we would have a program. But my job was to find what we could in each of those issues -- like when we went to Detroit, the first half-hour was those women from SOSAD, we actually built that show off of what we found.”

Altman is referring to an episode largely shot at a meeting of Save Our Sons and Daughters in the rundown Cass Corridor section of Detroit -- a group whose members have lost children to urban violence. It’s the series’ riskiest moment, in that the real pain of real people can’t help but overwhelm the filmmakers’ best-intended inventions. Yet it manages to work because Altman keeps his characters out of their way and just listens.

“It wouldn’t have made any difference whether we were there,” Altman says, “or whether Al Sharpton was there. I remember we got police help in all of these cities and so we had access to places, the police would come along and escort us. But when we told them where we were going, out to that neighborhood where we did the SOSAD thing, they said, ‘We’re not going. It’s too dangerous.’ So we went alone.”

Typically Altman

Apart from the fact that it was shot on video and is six hours long, it’s very much of a piece with the body of Altman’s work. Here again is the director’s noted overlapping dialogue. Here as elsewhere Altman eschews the usual hierarchy of master shot/two-shot/close-up for a more painterly, and lifelike, interplay of foreground, middle ground and background.

His films are like the big noisy canvases of Peter Brueghel in which a hundred things are going on at once -- they teem with life. He knows how to direct your attention -- there is a subtle hierarchy of information -- but doesn’t insist on it: He gives the viewer options, gives the eye and ear room to wander. That makes his movies, “Tanner ‘88” included, eminently rewatchable. He is a most democratic kind of filmmaker.

“Tanner ‘88” is not flawless -- given the facts of its production, it hardly could be otherwise. The seams sometimes show, it is occasionally hard to follow, and here and there it knocks against the edges of credibility. (It also features possibly the cheesiest aerial special effect since Flash Gordon first landed on the planet Mongo.) But it’s a rich work -- one that won Altman an Emmy for direction -- not to say a lot of fun, and in some ways the spiritual father of such series as “The Larry Sanders Show” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which share its hand-held camerawork, improvisational rhythms, and mix of the actual and the invented.

Altman and Trudeau teamed once more, in the ‘90s, on an ABC pilot called “Killer App,” set in Silicon Valley, but nothing came of it. Would he like to work in television again?

“Television, theater, opera, ballet,” Altman replies. “I don’t care as long as it’s ‘Look -- I made this.’ ”


‘Tanner ‘88’

When: 9-10 p.m. Tuesdays. Premiered Feb. 3.

Where: Sundance Channel

Rating: The network has rated the seris TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under the age of 14)

Michael Murphy...Jack Tanner

Pamela Reed...T.J. Cavanaugh

Cynthia Nixon...Alex Tanner

Stringer Kincaid...Daniel Jenkins

E. G. Marshall...General Tanner

Kevin O’Connor...Taggerty Hayes

Ilana Levine...Andrea Spinelli

Wendy Crewson...Joanna Buckley

Director, Robert Altman. Writer, Garry Trudeau. Producer, Scott Bushnell.