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Tanner on Tanner

New School teacher and fledgling documentarian Alex Tanner (Cynthia Nixon) demands very little of her students. "Make me laugh, make me cry, make me not fall asleep," is her charge as they scurry out of the classroom into the outside world to capture a little life, and, as Robert Altman amply demonstrates in Tanner on Tanner, the unambitious coda to his excellent 1988 HBO television series Tanner '88, it's also the underachieving creed to which she subscribes as she attempts to realize a hazily conceived documentary devoted to her out-to-pasture politician father, Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy). Shot during the contentious 2004 presidential campaign, Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau have reassembled most of the cast 16 years later for a four-episode lark that matches Alex's middling expectations, while exceeding her fictional skills, and delivering enough entertainingly wry observations of the American political scene to justify its existence. The greatest weakness of the series lies in Altman and Trudeau's decision to place Alex at the foreground of the action when her father's uncomfortable struggle with his obsolescence is far more intriguing. An enigma of near Gump-ian passivity which conceals a bilious undercurrent of rage at the current state of the nation, Jack Tanner comes to represent the sad soul of the bygone Democrats. His return to the convention floor, where Tanner '88 ended so memorably, is at once touching and pathetic, something Tanner seems to be grasping with the way his deer-in-the-headlights expression comes tinged with a mild, if unarticulated exasperation as he chats up still-vital party-mates like Richard Gephardt and Howard Dean. The only time his resentment boils over is after a friendly racquetball match with Al Franken — as Alex peppers her father with questions about the direction of the country, he explodes with a righteous, profanity-laden tirade directed at Bush and his neo-conservative allies whose doctrine of preemption hastily landed the U.S. in Iraq. This unguarded moment unexpectedly provides Alex a sellable hook her documentary otherwise lacks, but when Tanner's vanity is stroked by his former campaign manager T.J. Cavanaugh (Pamela Reed), who dangles the offer of an Assistant Secretary of State post in the Kerry administration, that spasm of honesty is suddenly jeopardized. Finally, Tanner on Tanner crystallizes as a disillusioned lament on the death of idealism, but it's a clichéd theme, and Alex is too old and too familiar with heartbreak to serve as a realistic surrogate for such a lesson. Still, there's something honorable about Altman and Trudeau's ability to recognize the inherent limitations of their concept and not overreach as so many of their fellow filmmakers did in the run-up to the 2004 election (e.g. John Sayles with Silver City or Michael Moore's cudgel job Fahrenheit 9/11). This modesty pays off with a number of amusing satiric bits, like Alex and Alexandra Kerry attempting to resolve their double booking of Ron Reagan with a disastrous joint interview, or Mario Cuomo enumerating the Bush administration's many mendacious offenses with an off-putting drone that effectively presages the Democrats' November loss. Sundance Channel Home Entertainment presents Tanner on Tanner in a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with solid Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. Extras include a number of behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crew, a photo gallery, and television spots. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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