Tanner '88 aka Tanner: A Political Fable.

  • Painful Political Commentary
  • The Music from "The Little Rascals"
  • Linda Ellerbee, Chris Matthews, and Bruce Babbit in the SAME MOVIE


Directed by Somebody who Didn't Vote for Jesse Jackson "I'm Bruce Babbit. When you all write about me in the history books, please try not to mention my association with Robert Altman or Tanner '88. I only did it because I heard Altman has some killer weed. "
All of My Political Heroes Are Dead.

The list goes from Thomas Jefferson to John Maynard Keynes to FDR to John F. Kennedy. Men who took ideas and made them legacies. But thankfully for him, Robert Altman's political hero is alive and well and his name is Bruce Babbit. Bruce Babbit! Why is this? How do I know? Why, he and Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau (No, not related to the former Canadian Prime Minister) turned the 1988 Showtime series Tanner '88 into a love letter to the former governor of Arizona and Clinton's Secretary of the Interior. In reality, it's a tale about the fictional 1988 Presidential campaign of Jack Tanner, Congressman and misguided Altman symbol. And below the surface in Altmanville, I'm guessing that these two guys thought they were making some pointed statements about how far the Democratic Party has gone away from the values that used to be definitive. What we get is a film that doesn't know what to think of its main character, some politics that are painfully socialistic if not simplistic, and productions values that look like they belong in a porno. And Bruce Babbit carries around a bag of bagels. Man, don't tell me that Altman isn't consistent.

To be fair, we could only find Part II out of the three tapes for the series of Tanner '88. But I do believe that after this set of four episodes, I couldn't handle much more. Michael Murphy (Nashville, Batman Returns) plays Tanner, one more loser that got lost in the shuffle of the 1988 Democratic Primary race. (In the midst of Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Gary Hart, and of course, Bruce Babbit. Lord, no wonder the Democrats only won 10 states that year.) He's a bit radical: He's arrested for a protest against South Africa and gives a speech about how the US has demonized the Soviet Union....to a sandbox full of preschoolers at a photo op. However, everyone on his campaign (from Pamela Reed to Kevin J. O'Conner) think that middle of the road and safe is the only way to be the man who gets the crap beat out of him by George Bush. So they drag poor Tanner to this dreadful rich person's house who has a designer who apparently has a real thing for chandeliers and  weird art deco that resembles the inside of a combustible engine. Here, the likes of Chris Matthews and others whom I've seen on shows like Washington Week in Review (but could never remember their names) try to tell Tanner how to "win the game". It is here where we get our first speech on Babbit from Tanner: "You know, he was an interesting guy with a lot of great things to say. Hey, don't get me wrong. I'm glad he's done and I'm glad he's out of my way. But, he did have a lot of interesting things to say". Yeah, I guess. They also drag him to this Hollywood shindig where this awful hair band is playing music in between talking about why young people don't want to vote. "It's because the old people in charge just don't understand, man!" Rebecca DeMornay doesn't understand, either. She plays herself and she tries to hit on Tanner, not realizing that she's the butt of joke on celebrities who try to act cool with political savvy. But he resists all of this prodding advice on every turn. Tanner misses a Congressional hearing in order to attend the above-mentioned protest. Altman makes a real mess out of staging this moment of political truthfulness (?) but it is very obvious that the black policeman are all standing behind the "Police Caution" barrier. Because we live in a racially-divided society, too. Just like in South Africa. Oh, and Tanner also gets Forrest Gump-ed into a debate with Dukakis and Jackson where he says: "Jesse, this country is willing to vote for a black person. They just aren't ready to vote for you." Man, this guy should totally hook up with Bill O'Reily! But no, Tanner is too busy hooking up with Bruce Babbit. Yes, the man himself sits down with Tanner and a bag of bagels. The imparting wisdom from Babbit: "Say important things. They should be able to talk about you in the history books. Win or lose". Wow, Just like how we still talk about Babbit. What the...?

And did I mention the subplot where Tanner had no idea he's carrying on an affair with a Dukakis coordinator? I mean, that's WACKY. But far from my biggest complaint. Let's start simple: This film has no budget and it shows. shimes pointed out that it looks like they borrowed the camera and the sound crew from the Ron Jeremy flick being shot next door. The sets and the actors look like they were borrowed from "It's the Garry Shandling Show" that was being taped at Showtime at about the same time. And there is one scene where Altman films an exterior shot of Tanner's campaign plane using a model attached to a string. But the Altman apologists say: "The man had no budget! What was he supposed to do?" Fair, but he could have done something about the script. Honestly, Trudeau is the only reason I pick up the Comics page anymore. He understands political symbols better than any satirist working. Just look at Mr. Butts or the Waffle Stand-In for Clinton. But his characters suck. Last year, his character Duke ran for President and that story was a monumental embarrassment. There was nothing interesting about the character so it was neither funny nor biting. He can't do characters and this script proves it. And neither can Altman as we have pointed out. Sometimes his broadly painted characters work to his advantage. Looking at Tanner '88, they were looking for characters that were merely stand-ins for their own beliefs. However, they try to make Tanner this conflicted man who doesn't know whether to embrace the past of the party or whether he should just sell out to get elected so then he can incorporate change. But, since this is done with such LARGE PROCLAMATIONS (Telling off Jesse or by looking bored during the S. Africa protest) it just comes off as confusing. As though they didn't know what to think, either. And as liberal as Altman and Trudeau are, they still come off as cynical and mean-spirited towards the politics of the film. Tanner's daughter sounds and looks like a shrill Amy Carter who wants to take over the campaign and every person fighting for civil rights or the environment comes off as someone with something to hideas though they were the Una-Bomber.

And I still don't get the whole thing about Bruce Babbit. Was he the only loser from 1988 who was willing to appear on this show and they just had to say all of these great things about him? I tried to do some research on Gov. Babbit but it just gave me a bunch of info from the Department of the Interior or his fight to protect wildlife in Yellowstone. Very noble stuff, but I can't figure out why Altman has such a boner for him. Did he try to legalize cocaine back in the 1970's? Oh, maybe he tried to pass legislation that would keep super models fully naked and on leashes at all times. Well, I couldn't find anything like that so it's anybody's guess. Maybe Altman was just mad about his career in 1988: Mad about being shut out of the establishment, mad about having to work for Showtime, mad about making OC and Stiggs. Perhaps he saw this horrible group of losers waiting to represent the Democrats and saw Babbit as a lovable everyman schlub. Someone that still believed in things no matter how bad or pitiful he looked. Maybe he's not just a political hero, maybe Altman and Babbit are soul mates. I have to wonder if Altman, barring that he is still alive, will look to Tom Daschle or to Dick Gephardt as the beacons of light in 2004. Whoever he picks to do another miniseries on, don't expect them to be in the history books, either.

The Pitch:
1 Primary Colors
1 Gary Shandling
1 Tanner '88 (That's actually from Nashville. I Can't find a Photo for this Piece of Garbage
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