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‘Tanner ’88’ is entertaining in 2004

/ Source: The Associated Press

“Tanner ’88,” a satirical miniseries about a make-believe presidential candidate on the real-life 1988 campaign trail, remains amazingly fresh after 16 years.

Seen now (courtesy of cable’s Sundance Channel, where the 11 weekly episodes begin airing Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET), “Tanner ’88” seems dated in only a few ways. For one thing, the rare cell phone is the size of a shoebox. And everybody smokes — everywhere.

But there’s a more fundamental contrast with today: The loopy, bare-knuckles portrait of politics as dramatized by “Tanner’s” creative duo — director Robert Altman and “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau, neither of whom has ever been accused of pulling his punch — seems downright genteel in today’s ever-harsher political climate.

For this reason alone, “Tanner ’88” serves as a fascinating adjunct to the 2004 primaries it will echo, as well as put into bitter perspective.

Not that “Tanner ’88” isn’t entertaining in its own right.

“I think it’s the most creative work I’ve ever done,” says Altman, quite a sweeping assessment from the director of “M-A-S-H,” “Nashville” and “The Player.” He is chatting on what happens to be the morning of the 2004 New Hampshire primary, which recalls how “16 years ago today we were up there, doing that first episode.”

Theirs was an innovative filmmaking concept. Originally produced for HBO, “Tanner ’88” took a “mockumentary” approach to “covering” its fictitious candidate, former Michigan congressman Jack Tanner, as he, his campaign team and press contingent traveled a bumpy road through the primaries en route to the Democratic National Convention.

Tanner (nailed by Michael Murphy, of such films as “Nashville” and Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”) is out to seize the nomination from actual candidates like Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt and Bruce Babbitt.

Along the way, he crosses paths with many of these “rivals,” plus other real-life figures including journalist Linda Ellerbee, country legend Waylon Jennings, actress Rebecca De Mornay, and Republican presidential hopefuls Bob Dole and Pat Robertson.

In an era that respected more than now the line dividing fantasy from truth, “Tanner ’88” was a mindbending hybrid — not to mention astute in how it sized up the modern campaign grind.

Now asked if he feels satisfied, even smug, by how “Tanner ’88” has stood the test of time, Altman answers, “I don’t know how much satisfaction there is.” Then he flashes a devilish smile. “But there’s a lot of smugness.”

‘For Real’ is nowAmong the “Tanner” troupe, Pamela Reed is perfect as T.J. Cavanaugh, the chain-smoking campaign manager. Cynthia Nixon (“Sex and the City”) plays Tanner’s devoted but high-strung 19-year-old daughter, who takes an often overactive campaign role — even getting herself and Dad arrested at a political demonstration.

In the first episode, Tanner is found running a New Hampshire gauntlet familiar to any cable-news viewer the past couple of weeks: door-to-door solicitation for votes.

Accepting a cup of coffee at one house, Tanner is reminded by his crusty host that he isn’t the first candidate to pay a call: “Practically everybody takes it black,” the man huffs, “except Gephardt — he turned his coffee into a damn milkshake.”

By week two, the action has shifted to Nashville, Tenn., where Cavanaugh unveils a new campaign slogan: “Tanner For Real.”

“What happened to ‘The Future Is Now’?” a reporter asks.

“‘The Future Is Now’ was then,” she declares, “and ‘For Real’ is now.”

“For real” or not, Tanner seems to be a decent, principled chap who can’t quite find his footing on the campaign trail — or won’t.

“I feel like I’m an innocent bystander in my own campaign,” he muses.

To depict Tanner as somewhat passive (Altman deems him “a reluctant candidate”) is a clever storytelling device: He is in the eye of the political hurricane, while the hurricane-like process swirling around him is what “Tanner ’88” is mostly interested in.

Though the actors stayed faithful to Trudeau’s script and Altman’s direction, “We were always looking for a way to hook reality into our fictional situations,” says Altman. So they made it up as they went along.

One instance: The February morning after Babbitt dropped out, the former Arizona governor taped a scene strolling with Tanner near the Washington monument where he voiced some off-the-cuff, heartfelt thoughts: “Whatcha wanna do in a campaign is say, ‘I ran, I made a difference. I’ll risk losing. But I just might win.”’

Warning! Spoiler!

Tanner does not win the presidency. He doesn’t even win the Democratic nomination, when, with all due hurly-burly, “Tanner ’88” concludes at the convention in Atlanta.

Of course, he never had a chance, as the present-day Tanner acknowledges in one of the new introductions to each episode taped in character by Murphy, Nixon and Reed.

People who succeed in politics, says Tanner, now a college professor, “care enough to do what it takes to win,” hence they “aren’t like you and me. Especially me.”

“Tanner ’88” leaves you wondering, what if they were?