Tanner '88 Robert Altman

In the 16 years since director Robert Altman teamed up with writer and Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau to create a mockumentary about a political candidate, called Tanner '88, so much has changed that it's come full circle, politically at least. When it first broadcast, Tanner '88 was a groundbreaking piece of fictional television — over 11 episodes, Altman followed fictitious presidential candidate Jack Tanner (played by Michael Murphy, veteran of films like M*A*S*H and Manhattan to Batman Returns and Magnolia). Tanner interacts with real journalists, fellow politicos and audiences in a verité attempt to capture and parody the ridiculously superficial process by which Americans choose their leaders. As a mockumentary, it's ground-breaking stuff — so much so that 16 years later it seems completely familiar and superfluous, so trained are we in the rhythms and assumptions of reality TV and the manipulations of the documentary form. That's no surprise, given the cultural proliferation of the phenomenon. What is surprising, looking at the mini-series with fresh eyes, is how little of it seems like parody. Over the course of the campaign, Tanner is caught in an inappropriate affair, has his agenda hijacked by his politically aware daughter (a pre-Sex and the City Cynthia Nixon) and gets made up by image consultants to be "punchier" and more "engaging" to viewers and voters. This was meant, one supposes, to be an attack on the political process and the dumbing down of the American political discourse. Frankly, given the tweedle dee and tweedle dum nature of most elections these days, I think most Americans would choose Jack Tanner pretty much any time. In fact, given the puffed shirts being touted as "options," most Americans would probably say that Michael Murphy playing Jack Tanner would be a better choice as president. This two-disc DVD reissue does its best to maintain the illusion of a documentary style, and it contains, under the heading "Once More In '04," a number of follow-up interviews with Murphy, Nixon, and campaign manager T. J. Cavanaugh (played by Pamela Reed) all in character, commenting on various elements of the campaign as it unravels episode by episode. It's the only extra, other than a conversation between Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau, where they discuss process and intent. Strangely, it doesn't contain any reference to Tanner On Tanner, a follow-up mini-series (listed on imdb.com as "in production") that is supposed to update Tanner's political aspirations. Strike now, or it's gonna be too late. (Criterion/Morningstar)