Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 06 October 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
reviews: Secret Honor
Beginning with and perhaps best indicated in M*A*S*H, Robert Altman’s canon is one decidedly as well as structurally antithetic – at the most essential level – to customary Hollywood filmmaking rules. This tactic of stubborn opposition and individuality distinguishes each of his films.
Altman’s directorial tactics have suited some materials more appropriately than others (The Player being among his more caustic displays), and conceptually he is perhaps no better equipped than to helm political satire – in which Altman’s liberalism is of obvious utility. Elements of Altman’s reactionary politics are manifested in each of his films, but it is his Tanner ’88, an eleven-episode miniseries produced for HBO during the 1988 presidential campaign, that finds Altman at his most satiric and volatile.
The series is written and co-produced by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. Suitably, each character is equivalent, by dress and mannerisms that sufficiently – and efficiently – relay a character’s nature, to one of Trudeau’s pen-and-ink creations (one even resembles Doonesbury’s Duke): T. J., an incessant and manipulative campaign manager; Deke, a cameraman preoccupied with the opportunity to distinguish his coverage, even though he’s routinely lodged in a pool of similarly-ambitious photographers; and Alex, the candidate’s open-minded and obsessive daughter, who imposes her ideals upon her father, and at one point gets him arrested (an action she observes as a sort of validation). The series details the evolution of a campaign and is decidedly in service to illustrate the production, mishaps, and artificiality that suggestively distinguish high-profile American elections.
It is Trudeau’s and Altman’s title creation, expectedly, that exhibits the critical political stances of both. Jack Tanner, worn with knowledge and capability by Altman regular Michael Murphy, is not a feasible candidate in many facets of his life and ideas. At a debate with Jesse Jackson, Tanner, a single father, urgently criticizes the minister of attributing racism to his detractors, and shortly after this comment Tanner announces his support for the legalization of drugs. Tanner’s aims succeed at earning the attention of many, but because of his extreme liberalism (exemplified in most every decision he makes, such as appointing Ralph Nader as Attorney General), as he begins to realize midway through his campaign, his ideas may be too reactionary to elect him. Tanner’s questionable eligibility is reflected in more subtle manners: at one point, his campaign team addresses his lack of comfort when holding an infant. Thinking the gesture necessary to traditional party candidates, they buy him a doll to practice with.
Tanner ’88 is distinguished conceptually by its documentary format. It is shot on video, much of it resembling generic news photography – most every episode contains a scene in which Tanner is flanked by news affiliate microphones. The ultimate trump of Tanner ’88 is its realism. Throughout the series Tanner rubs elbows with his would-be competitors, including Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Pat Robertson (whose chance encounter with Tanner was not staged, and who shakes the faux candidate’s hand with a politician’s pretend familiarity), Bruce Babbit, and Kitty Dukakis. Tanner coheres with his opposing candidates without disruption because, essentially, he has their same intentions: to shake hands and impress others into subscribing to his ideas.
Jack Tanner’s campaign is founded on the slogan “For real.” He promotes his authenticity and reliability, admits his mistakes, and even at a later point is swayed to reconsider his agenda after visiting an urban ghetto and discovering a child’s dead body. The fundamental caveat of Tanner ’88 is that it’s not real, that it serves to indicate a similar artificiality in the arena it relevantly mocks.