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[writing in his diary]
March 11, 1988. I've spent the day talking with contributors. Even after a year of such calls, it still amazes me how many ordinary citizens feel strongly enough about an election's outcome to give. Their faith lends much dignity to the whole process by which we choose our country's ...
Dad? USA Today is on the other line. They want to know, if you were a fruit or a vegetable, which one would you be?
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During the 1988 presidential campaign, Democratic hopefuls spiritedly canvass the country and jostle for their party's nomination and the honor of opposing Republican Vice President George Bush when congressman Jack Tanner emerges from a long political hiatus to challenge such opponents as Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, Gary Hart and Jesse Jackson. The Tanner campaign appears at all the events and interacts with many important figures. What no one seems to realize, or particularly care about, is that Jack Tanner doesn't even exist. Michael Murphy stars in this hilarious and biting satire of media-age politics - relevant now more than ever.
Renegade filmmaker Robert Altman and Pulitzer-winning Doonesbury cartoonist G.B. Trudeau created the Jack Tanner character, but they couldn't hope to predict the frenzy he'd create. Politicians were eager to meet him, and more than happy to pretend they knew him. If it would make them look good, of course. Everyone from Pat Roberston to Bob Dole happily talked to Jack and his crew, knowing he had a media blitz surrounding him. The catch is they didn't know why he had a blitz around him.
Altman and crew were constantly filming Michael Murphy as he took the Tanner role and ran with it, frequently improvising, as Trudeau couldn't keep up with the goings-on well enough to script half of what Murphy did. What Trudeau did script was the behind-the-scenes action of the Tanner campaign. Campaign Manager T.J. Cavanaugh (masterfully portrayed by Pamela Reed) and her slew of assistants hustled and bustled in their HQ, desperately trying to spin everything Jack did to make him look 'For real', so as to match his slogan. Unfortunately, as T.J. put it, 'things happen to this man'.
Tanner has a lot of problems both in front of and behind the camera. First there's the camera-man Deke, who reads Jack's diary and puts his personal thoughts into campaign commercials and, after being fired, joins the NBC news crew that is assigned to follow Jack, which gives Deke even more chances to ruin Jack's life. Secondly there's the fact that Jack has fallen deeply in love with Michael Dukakis' (fictitious) campaign manager, Joanna Buckley. Thirdly, Jack's daughter, Alex, bounces between free-spiritedness and megalomania, both of which make Jack look bad. Last, but not least, is the fact that Jack never takes a definite stance on anything except drug legalization. This makes him look like more of a hippy than a politician.
Over the course of six hours and eleven episodes, Altman and Trudeau use their characters and the real politicians to weave a brilliant fable about the state of politics in a world where image means more than qualifications and standards. Pathetic as it may be, it's true. In most of the encounters Jack has with politicians it is quite clear that these people have no idea what is going on, yet they still pretend to be completely in control. When we put them in the White House, do they know what they're doing or are they just pretending to be completely in control? "Tanner '88" is a mockumentary that actually has a point, and makes that point very well.
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