This was a six-hour HBO mini-series, a one-hour pilot and then ten half-hour episodes. The idea was to follow a fictional presidential campaign at the same time the real campaigns were going on, and it works quite well. It was scripted by Garry Trudeau (did you know that Doonesbury is still running in newspapers? Or … somewhere, anyway, because who can find a newspaper anymore?), but much of it was improvised, as is common in Altman films. It is both hilariously funny, and quite sobering, a portrayal of the slow process of surrendering one’s principles to court voters, or what the spin doctors perceive are the attitudes of voters, that is as good as anything I’ve seen since Robert Redford in The Candidate. What a horror show is our political process these days. Okay, it was probably nasty in Thomas Jefferson’s day, too, but now it’s ugly on steroids. We follow the ugliness, starting with the idiotic campaigns in New Hampshire. I mean, who the fuck gives a shit about what the voters of New Hampshire think, except every four years, when every backwoods hick expects every candidate to show up in their living room? But every four years they show up in the ice and drifting snow, probably cursing the day New Hampshire was made a state. Then on the campaign bus, with the backbiting and gamesmanship among the reporters.
But the biggest part of the fun is when real-life politicians and reporters appear as themselves. It seems it was quite fashionable there in ’88 to appear on the show. Unsurprisingly, after almost thirty years, with many of them it has become a case of “Now who the hell was he? The name is vaguely familiar.” Though some of them are still notorious, like Gary Hart.
Altman regular Michael Murphy is damn good as Tanner himself. Pamela Reed is great as T.J. Cavanaugh, Tanner’s campaign manager, who has seen it all. His daughter is the rather clueless Cynthia Nixon (no relation), who we will see much more of in the 2004 sequel, Tanner on Tanner.