Primary Colors" may well be one of the best movies ever made about presidential politics, but in 1998, that is not enough.
In a nation jaded by politicians and "educated" by wall-to-wall news analysis, a depiction of the manipulations and rationalizations in big-time campaigns fails to surprise or even dishearten anymore. The conclusions "Primary Colors" draws exactly mirror the calculations millions of Americans long ago made about Bill Clinton: Yes, he's flawed -- terribly, disappointingly, depressingly -- but he's also a pretty good president.
"Primary Colors," a faithful if overlong adaptation of the best seller by Un-anonymous reporter Joe Klein, reflects the cynicism of electoral politics today. But it's not much of an illumination of how we got here.
The movie's strength, aside from sly humor (John Travolta in a clunky dance, for example) and generally (but not unanimously) strong performances, is a sophisticated appreciation for the complexity of the people who practice politics. Unique among American political movies, "Primary Colors" understands that idealism and cynicism, sincerity and manipulation often co-exist in the same man. Harrison Ford is nowhere to be seen.
Directed by Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Carnal Knowledge" and "Catch-22") from a screenplay by Elaine May ("The Birdcage"), "Primary Colors" is transparently based on Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign (which Klein covered for Newsweek). The story is told through the eyes of Henry Burton (shrewdly played by British stage actor Adrian Lester), the grandson of a storied civil rights leader.
Burton, an African-American version of George Stephanopoulos,
is a young but savvy political strategist who yearns to attach himself to a candidate who shares his progressive ideals. With some reservations, Henry believes that candidate to be Jack Stanton (Travolta), a little-known governor of a Southern state who is running a long-shot campaign for president.
Stanton has a seductive, empathetic style along with a seemingly sincere commitment to the poor. When Henry first observes Stanton speaking to adults in a Harlem literacy program, the governor's compassion moves him to tears. Stanton, Henry thinks, may be the real thing.
But Henry soon realizes that this real thing is an imperfect model. Stanton is a serial womanizer as well as an artful liar, whose excesses Henry must continually address in the campaign. Still, Henry keeps trying to convince himself that Stanton is the best hope for the nation. As Henry tells a friend, he can tell the difference between a man who believes in a just cause but lies to get elected vs. someone who doesn't believe in anything.
The film presents an array of characters familiar to Clinton-watchers. Best of all is Emma Thompson as Susan Stanton, the president's wife. Thompson's portrayal is smart, sexy and funny. She adores her husband, but she also has a steely resolve to accommodate herself to his peccadilloes, which threaten to destroy his candidacy. It is not that Susan is inured to his betrayals, but that she remains more focused than anyone else on the ultimate goal.
Billy Bob Thornton ("Sling Blade") plays the James Carville character, a good ole boy with sure political instincts. Kathy Bates represents the moral conscience of the film. She is Libby Holden, an openly gay political operative who has loved the Stantons the longest and can least bear watching their corruptions as the campaign ensues.
The weakness in the cast, surprisingly, is Travolta. He is the only cast member to fall into the trap of impersonation rather than acting. Instead of inhabiting a character, Travolta does an impression of Clinton, complete with paunch, jowls and mannerisms. It is a cartoonish performance and a distraction. Except in one self-pitying scene ("I can't catch a break," Stanton laments when his affair with a teen-ager surfaces), Travolta gives us the Bill Clinton whom we see on television every day.
The promise of "Primary Colors" was that it would reveal to us a deeper understanding of politicians in general and Bill Clinton in particular. Instead, the movie tells us exactly what we've already come to believe.
Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates
Directed by Mike Nichols
Released by Universal
Rated R (language, sexuality)
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 3/20/98