Politics As Usual

Documentaries `Tanner' and `Diary' fail to show viewers anything new.


October 05, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

We may be in the golden age of the documentary, but these are dreary days when it comes to productions dealing with politics.

While television viewers this year have been enlightened by great and engaging films about race, for example - like Orlando Bagwell's Citizen King or America Beyond the Color Line with Henry Louis Gates - there has been nothing comparable when it comes to presidential politics on the big or small screen.

In theaters, polemical attacks pass as political documentary these days, with Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 making $100 million at the box office and drawing several competing, also highly partisan, films into the skirmish.

And so, in these final weeks before the presidential election, we look to television - the principal storyteller of American politics for decades - for a little reason, balance and light rather than heat.

But instead, we get more flawed political filmmaking, in the form of Tanner on Tanner (tonight at 9 on the Sundance Channel) and Diary of a Political Tourist (Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO). The former, an update on the groundbreaking 1988 mockumentary Tanner '88, is so busy trying to look clever that it forgets all about having anything wise to say. The latter, a follow-up to a 2002 political film, is lost in the self-indulgent, annoying and, at times, inane narration of filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi.

Neither adds much insight into the candidates or the process by which we elect a president.

Dueling, unabashedly partisan documentaries have been popping up - and popping off - for months in theaters. Last week, Republicans countered the President Bush-bashing Fahrenheit 9/11 (released on DVD today) with Celsius: 41.11 - The Temperature at Which the Brain Begins to Die, billed as "The Truth Behind the Lies of Fahrenheit 9/11!" Last month, Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal, attacked Sen. John Kerry's anti-war efforts, and was quickly answered by Going Upriver: The Long Journey of John Kerry, celebrating Kerry's Swift boat combat record.

The kindest thing that can be said about the TV productions is that they are at least not as blatant in their propaganda.

When Tanner '88 debuted on HBO during that election year with Michael Murphy as a Democratic candidate reminiscent of Gary Hart, the miniseries was groundbreaking in the way it blurred fact and fiction and forced one to think about the difference between image and reality in American political life. Long before such pale imitations as last year's K Street, Tanner '88 had Murphy interacting with real candidates like Michael S. Dukakis on the campaign trail.

But that's old stuff now, and as brilliant as screenwriter Garry Trudeau and director Robert Altman have been in their careers of political cartooning and feature filmmaking, respectively, they don't appear to have anything new to say about electing presidents (at least not in the first two Tanner on Tanner episodes made available for preview).

Tanner on Tanner brings back Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Tanner's daughter, Alex, who is making a documentary about her father's failed campaign. There is also a student making a documentary about her, and appearances by filmmakers Martin Scorcese and actor Steve Buscemi - all of which is aimed at suggesting Tanner on Tanner has insights to offer about the making of documentaries as well as politics. If only it were true.

The moment at which one realizes just how superficial Tanner on Tanner is comes at the climax of tonight's episode during a scene set at a film festival. After the showing of a rough cut of Alex's film, the audience starts taking her work apart during a question-and-answer session.

The critique is harsh, and just as she starts to cry, who should pop up from his theater seat? Robert Redford, the famous actor who also runs the Sundance Channel and the Sundance Film Festival.

"You can't cry in independent film," he says. "This is a rough cut film festival. People come here to make mistakes, and it seems like you made a big one. You're showing people stuff they already know."

After explaining that voters understand what he calls "the mechanics" of campaigning, he urges her to instead make a film about what makes the candidates run. "What's so different about the people who put themselves through this? What are their losses? What sacrifices are they forced to make? ... That's the movie I'd like to see."

Redford's statement is treated as if it is a great insight. But it's not. That story has been told by author Richard Ben Cramer in his acclaimed 1992 book What It Takes: The Way to the White House.

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