Primary Colors

Robert Altman’s Tanner ‘88 exposes the fiction of democracy.

Tanner ‘88, the TV miniseries from that year directed by Robert Altman and written by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, accomplished the impossible: It made me nostalgic for the 1980s. What a time it was: heavy-metal hair bands, chain-smoking women in power suits, and the last gasp of the kind of rough-and-tumble American politics that makes the pussyfooted pandering of the 2004 Democratic primaries look even sadder by comparison. The 11-part series follows the campaign of a fictional progressive candidate, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), from the New Hampshire primary through the Democratic Convention in Atlanta. Thanks to some anonymous programming genius at the Sundance Channel, Tanner is being rebroadcast in its entirety over a period that corresponds almost exactly with the schedule for this year’s primary races. Tuesdays at  9 p.m., (beginning last night, Feb. 3) you can watch a diverse group of Democratic hopefuls in a tight race for New Hampshire, all of them looking to beat a sitting Republican named George Bush. Wait, wasn’t this on last week?

A presidential debate Besides the eerie synchronicity of the two campaigns, Tanner boasts another element that will be familiar to the 2004 electorate—sorry, I mean audience. More than a decade before the ascendance of reality television, the series slyly blended fiction and documentary, with real-life political and media figures—Bob Dole, Bruce Babbitt, and Linda Ellerbee among them—crossing paths with, and commenting upon, Tanner’s grass-roots campaign. But Tanner’s formal complexity—a loose, layered blend of group improvisation, scripted set pieces, and the intervention of pure chance—manages to point up not only the laziness of reality shows like Survivor and The Bachelor but their moral and political vacuity. Rather than create a simulacrum of the “real” through a process of contrived isolation, Altman engages in a kind of guerrilla filmmaking, following the primaries to six different cities, running a candidate of his own, and seeing if anyone notices. Like a sculptor using found materials, Altman ingeniously deploys media sound bites to rewrite the history of the ‘88 campaign, as in the scene that appears to place the fictional Tanner in the midst of an actual televised debate between Jesse Jackson and Michael Dukakis. Notice how Altman’s choice of frame takes advantage of obstacles (bustling journalists, a television set) to emphasize the question of perspective, the difficulty of seeing what’s “really” happening before our eyes. Sure, the camera “tricks” us into thinking that Tanner was present at the Jackson/Dukakis debate, but is the average viewer of any televised political spectacle any less deceived?

Between the murky sound mix and the cheap-looking newsroom video, it’s easy to feel that Tanner is a bit of a mess—that is, until you realize that Altman’s freewheeling use of image and sound is the cinematic equivalent of the mess of democracy itself. Tanner is the kind of ensemble comedy that made Altman one of the great maverick filmmakers of the 1970s: People wander in and out of frame, off-camera grumbles overlap with muffled laughter from a separate conversation across the room. But story arcs slowly emerge from the seemingly random exchanges, with that special Altmanian grace that David Edelstein recently noted in his review of The Company.

Impromptu pep talk One of the running gags of the show is that Jack Tanner is always either a victim or a beneficiary of dumb luck; as his tough-talking campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed) observes after yet another photo-op gone wrong, “This man is constantly being overtaken by events.” It’s only well into the series that we realize that Tanner’s passivity is Altman’s point. This is not a show about one man’s fake candidacy, nor even about the “real” ‘88 election, but about the American political process and its reliance on the media to court an increasingly fickle electorate. In this clip from early on in the series, Tanner’s candidacy gets a sudden boost when he’s filmed without his knowledge from beneath a glass coffee table as he gives his exhausted staff an impromptu pep talk on democracy. Once again, the framing is key: Like the voter, the viewer is trapped by a frustratingly limited perspective, straining to see the “real” Jack Tanner through a glass darkly. Nonetheless, the raw, heartbroken patriotism of Jack’s speech convinces us that we’ve glimpsed something genuine—until we realize that his staff cameraman has captured the whole thing on film, to be used as a campaign ad promoting the new Tanner slogan: “For real.”

And yet both Trudeau and Altman, peerless satirists though they are, evince a surprising amount of hope in the American political process, reminding us that there’s a big difference between satire and cynicism. The series has a fearsomely catchy theme song, written by longtime Altman collaborator Allan Nichols, which re-emerges in various versions throughout—picked by a bluegrass band in Nashville, piped into hotel lobbies as Muzak, screeched by  heavy-metal rockers at a Hollywood political rally—encouraging listeners to “Pick the proper candidate/ You can change the course of fate.” It’s hard not to hear the song’s exhortation as a message and to come away tapping your toe while thinking, “Gee, I’d better double-check my voter registration before the primary.”

For this re-airing of Tanner ‘88, Altman and Trudeau have teamed up with the series’ three principals (Murphy as Tanner, Reed as Cavanaugh, and Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon as Tanner’s idealistic college-age daughter, Alex) to tape a one- to two-minute prelude to each episode. These segments, in which the actors reflect, in character, on the ‘88 campaign from the perspective of the present day, are as well-written as, if not better than, anything from the original series. The characters have aged, as have their politics, and we see how the various stances they take—Tanner’s wry irony, Alex’s cheerfully outdated utopianism, and Cavanaugh’s pugilistic Realpolitik—constitute a kind of trinity of possibilities for the left. If, in the form and the content of his work, Altman is our most democratic filmmaker, perhaps the unresolved tensions Tanner leaves in its wake are a deliberate suggestion that our future can only be arrived at through (and as) that murmured cacophony of voices.