Robert Altman's double-feature smile

With pioneering 'Tanner '88' and new 'Company,' 'he's happy as a clam'


February 01, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Tell Robert Altman that you've just watched his 16-year-old campaign-trail mini-series Tanner '88, which airs on the Sundance Channel for the next 11 Tuesdays, and he interrupts in mock-disbelief, "But that must be six hours!"

Tell him it's the best six hours of television that you've seen in months, and that it made you run off to see his new dance film, The Company, and he says, "That makes me feel real good." (The Company, a jolt of aesthetic adrenaline, does not yet have an opening date in Baltimore.)

Decades after he made his breakthrough with M*A*S*H (1970) and became a legend with Nashville (1975), the 79-year-old director is having the second or third prime of his movie life, the way John Huston did when he made Prizzi's Honor and The Dead. Altman's vitality courses through the phone line from his New York office, where he's putting together plans to direct Paint, a movie about the contemporary art scene, starring Salma Hayek and James Franco (of The Company). With Tanner '88 and The Company in the public eye, Altman says, "I'm happy as a clam."

At first glance, the two are opposites. Tanner '88 follows a fictional Democratic candidate, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), through the factual minefields of a primary season and straight up to the Atlanta convention. This cross-country political odyssey teems with sharply etched characters and startling incidents that in Altman's words "just grew like Topsy." The Company is an imagistic spree with the barest story line about a striving young dancer (Neve Campbell), her ups and downs as a member of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, and her romance with a good-looking restaurant cook (Franco).

But the mini-series and the movie are related in their method and audacity. For each, Altman embarked on a headlong voyage of enlightenment through a world unknown to him -- and translated his experience into bolts of revelation for the audience.

"We never have the money to make these things, but we get them done," he says with satisfaction. And he does them right. Even the revival of Tanner '88 arrives on TV screens this week with fresh, inspired embellishments. The author of the original 11 episodes, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, wrote "fireside chats" for Altman to film with Murphy as the ex-candidate, now a professor at Michigan State University, as well as "interviews" with Tanner's daughter Alex (Cynthia Nixon) and T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed), his former campaign manager.

"Just showing these people 16 years later is text," says Altman, referring to the way their aging deepens our perspective on their characters. But the new material is also funny, sharp and eloquent about political campaigns and human nature. Altman chuckles when he thinks of T.J.'s insight that the ideal campaign bedmate would turn into a pizza at 4 a.m. Later, Trudeau gives Murphy a summary speech that ranks with any in great political fiction. "There are no moral victories in politics," he says. "There's only winning. And if you have even the slightest doubt about that, you shouldn't be in it. You should move aside for those who care enough to do what it takes to win."

"You know," Altman says, warming to the subject, "what's amazing is how au courant the show is. The main difference I can see is the size of the cell phones. We've sold Tanner '88 every four years to England. But nobody was interested in running it again here -- everybody thought it was yesterday's news, old hat. Last year Sundance came to us about reviving it and they've been terrific about it."

Pioneering form

Tanner '88 started when HBO went to Trudeau hoping he'd give them a political TV show and Trudeau said he'd do it only if the cable network snagged Altman. The writer and the director came up with the notion of an unknown former Michigan congressman running for the Democratic nomination after a political hiatus. Before they were done, they pioneered a new form of political docu-satire, with a supporting cast including real politicos like Bob Dole, Gary Hart and Pat Robertson, real journalists and pundits like Linda Ellerbee, Chris Matthews and Hodding Carter, and even a real public speaking coach in Dorothy Sarnoff, author of Never Be Nervous Again.

"We shot it on video and our camera wasn't any bigger than anyone else's, so these guys were all disarmed a little bit. And we soon learned in New Hampshire that when you had candidates chugging around in the snow, every time they saw a camera they wanted to be in front of it."

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