It’s Democratic primary time and a half-dozen candidates are roaming the country, desperately jostling for the nomination. But we’re not talking howling Howard Dean or John Kerry—Tanner ’88 whisks us back to the days of Dukakis and Tsongas, Jackson and Hart, all competing for a chance to knock out George Bush Senior. Long before K Street, Garry Trudeau and Robert Altman devised this mock-documentary miniseries, which snuck a fictitious candidate named Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) in among the multitudes of Democratic contenders. Filmed and broadcast during the ’88 campaign, Tanner is now being cleverly resuscitated as an 11-part series. Sundance has updated it with charming interviews from key characters who look back on changes in the political landscape.
This gritty backstage glimpse of the campaign process must have been revelatory in 1988, the watershed year in which Hart’s candidacy was brought down by a sex scandal and “the curtain on our private lives got pulled back.” Not so now that we’re all intimately acquainted with spin doctors and focus groups. Shot on video to conjure a sense of shoddy authenticity, Tanner also feels visually exhausting, like watching a sluggish home video that’s been tucked away in the cellar. Yet the impressive ensemble cast (including Cynthia Nixon as Tanner’s earnest teenage daughter) wrings plenty of humor and pathos out of their zigzagging journey from New Hampshire knitting circles to the Democratic convention, muddling through public-relations upswings (a botched assassination attempt in Nashville gets them national buzz) and disasters (Tanner is caught dating Dukakis’s campaign manager). Although Altman doesn’t achieve any grand statements beyond the obvious idea that the way we elect our presidents leaves something to be desired, his satire still holds up pretty well. Tanner’s young aides argue at one point about whether people are exhausted by the drawn-out campaign process or just disgusted by the mediocrity of their candidates. “They want a white Jesse Jackson!” one guy yells. But after showing his passionate side by getting arrested at an anti-apartheid rally, Tanner notes that “in this country, being arrested over a principle is a liability. It says ’60s. It says loser.”
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