In keeping with the end of a life and career that busied itself with projects told from a decidedly more feminine point of view, Robert Altman and Garry Trudeau revisited the Jack Tanner character from their brilliant Tanner ‘88 and brushed him and his circus off for Tanner on Tanner, the four-part mini-series for Showtime which was shot and aired in 2004. One one hand a meditation on media in the Bush years just as he was on the cusp of winning a second term and, on the other, a thoughtful and poignant look at finding relevance in the shadow of a famous parent, Tanner on Tanner wisely reduces Michael Murphy’s Jack Tanner to a supporting player in favor of his daughter, Alex (Cynthia Nixon).
If Tanner on Tanner lacks the same kind of spark as Tanner ‘88, it’s because America is such a vastly different space. The seeds sewn in 1988, a year in which another George Bush emerged the victor, have finally come to their logical end in 2004 as George W. Bush will oversee a cataclysmic natural disaster that will soon be followed by a series of economy roiling bankruptcies, triggering a financial crisis not seen since the Great Depression. Tanner on Tanner takes place before those things occur but it’s hard to watch it now and not have an a-ha moment in recognizing that this was last wheeze of what could be considered the establishment GOP. Even Tanner on Tanner’s inclusion of pieces of then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama’s famous keynote address that must have given Altman some kind of hope for the future now seems completely depressing given the depths of the bottom toward which we’ve raced at a speed that can only be described as remarkable.
Tanner on Tanner does take place in a post-9/11 America, now cowering in fear in the shadow of the terrorist attack. And it concerns itself with things of great gravity, namely the ongoing Iraq War. But that sure does seem quaint in this day and age which is to admit something equally frightening and sad. Utilizing the 2004 Democratic convention is a masterstroke in terms of Altman’s reckoning with history as it would be his last presidential election and, no doubt, a disappointing one for him, given its outcome. Altman’s professional life was more or less bookended by Eisenhower and Bush; robust hopefulness slowly disintegrating into rank hopelessness.
In order to get the audience to the convention, the film focuses on Cynthia Nixon’s Alex Tanner who teaches a documentary filmmaking class (“Think brave, Shoot brave, Be brave” is the class motto) and is also simultaneously working on her own documentary about her ex-candidate father, Jack Tanner. After collapsing under pressure at the Q&A following the premiere of her film, she gets rescued by Robert Redford who encourages her to rework the material to say something personal. This prompts her to re-edit the existing footage with a new angle to be shot at the DNC in Boston where her father is acting in an unofficial advisory position for many of the pols.
While Alex’s stated purpose to make the doc is to give the public “something they haven’t seen,” her compelling reason for making the film is really to make her feel validated or important. She’s like the liberal Meghan McCain, leeching off the memory of her father’s legacy which, in the world of Tanner, is admittedly smaller. And there really is something truly pathetic about Alex’s attempt to make a movie about her father who was a political almost-was by pumping his meager page in history full of fluff only to boost her own ego. One of the most cringe-worthy scenes has Alexandra Kerry (in a genuinely great turn as herself) and Alex Tanner do a tandem interview with Ron Reagan in which Kerry asks him pertinent questions about timely matters and Alex continues to make her questions about her and their supposed connection as children of elected officials. Her working out her issues with her father and her life through political media is gross and sad.
But as Tanner on Tanner unfolds over its four episodes, Alex’s life becomes more layered and more sympathetic with the whole notion of invasion of privacy turning against her. Her continued inability to land interviews with her dad’s peers strips additional layers of veneer off of Alex until she realizes her life has been little more than a litany of flighty decisions that coasted off the fumes of her dad’s name. In the end she’s 35, her mother makes her car payment, and her father pays her rent. All she has is a vague idea in her head that she wants “to look at the world to see who we are and who we’re becoming.”
Alex’s opportunistic need for validation creates a kind of scorched earth approach that damns everything in the name of cheap emotion and cheaper publicity. Even though Michael Moore is featured, I’m not sure Altman really liked him or his approach to polemics-as-entertainment as much as he understood that, in the media culture of tomorrow, mixing fact and fiction, an idea pioneered back in the halcyon days of 1988, will just be a thing that we’ll have to get used to. Old school documentary filmmaking, the film bitterly argues, is all but dead, and an emphasis is placed on a media that is getting much smaller and more portable that can be even more voyeuristic and cruel.
While there is a real character struggle in Tanner on Tanner, it’s not all existential bad news. Per usual, all of the overlappping grout is a joy to eavesdrop on and each one of the returning cast members are fun to see, most especially Matt Malloy’s Deke Connors, now working a side hustle editing hardcore pornography; and Pamela Reed’s TJ Cavanaugh, exhausted Kerry campaign functionary. Altman’s weaving of the Dean Scream into a snippet on the soundtrack is pretty subversive given its a moment being used for entertainment when, in fact, it’s the very moment that put Dean’s political career six feet under. Aside from the numerous cameos that were the staple of the original series, genius recognizes genius when Martin Scorsese shows up in a small bit and, quite beautifully, would later pay tribute to Altman by casting Michael Murphy as Jack Tanner in Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story in 2019. Additionally, the fictional inference that Jack Tanner wrote a line which ended up in John Kerry’s actual acceptance speech is a nice riff on Steven Soderbergh’s K Street, itself a 2004 documentary that took its cues from Tanner ‘88 and was, like Tanner on Tanner, set during the presidential campaign, mixing actual fact and fiction when a scripted line from the show ended up being used by Howard Dean in an actual presidential debate.
More than just a nostalgic lark, Tanner on Tanner is a complex film that is a plea for truth in our media and a hope for bravery for the future while also illustrating the very real divide between political pragmatism and artistic idealism. That this lesson is learned by a character having to come to terms with the exact same disillusionment that overtook her dad sixteen years prior makes Tanner on Tanner a little tougher and a little more bittersweet than what was probably expected by returning to Tannerland, but it sure beats the hell out of the reunion-show treacle that festoons our popular culture today.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain