WASHINGTON -- The release of the movie version of "Primary Colors," the roman a clef based on President Clinton's campaign for the presidency in 1992, has come at a most propitious time for its maker, Mike Nichols, if not for the president.
The not-even-thinly-veiled character of Mr. Clinton is played with mirrorlike similarity to the real thing by John Travolta, as a folksy smoothie with his eye not only on the prize of the presidency but also on sexual targets that come his way.
Only the names are changed, as they say, but viewers familiar with the 1992 cast of campaign characters will have little trouble identifying the actors with the politicians and aides they portray, including Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mr. Nichols has a fun time with the book, and with Mr. Clinton. He takes certain liberties to enhance the dramatic effect, including casting a black actor in the role of a young straight arrow with reservations about the candidate's sincerity, apparently patterned after George Stephanopoulos, whose current reservations are in clear view on television these days.
From print to celluoid
Because the book itself was a roman a clef, Mr. Nichols has merely put on celluloid what journalist-turned-anonymous-author Joe Klein did in print. It is an interesting contrast to that other noted filmmaker who plays around with political reality, Oliver Stone.
In his two fictional accounts about past presidents, "JFK" and "Nixon," Mr. Stone with the use of film documentary devices managed to peddle his theories about Kennedy's death and Nixon's life in a calculated blur of the line between fact and fiction. In blending actual documentary footage with actor-portrayed scenes dreamed up by Mr. Stone, the results were often misleading to uninformed eyes.
Mr. Stone went to great lengths, after a flood of criticism of his methods and story line in "JFK," to argue that "Nixon" was painstakingly researched. Accompanying the publicity for the latter movie was a small mountain of explanatory footnotes, at the same time he was insisting that he was committing a movie, not history.
On a smaller scale, veteran moviemaker John Frankenheimer did the same in last year's made-for-television film "Wallace," about George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who famously stood in the schoolhouse door to protest the desegregation of his state university. While hewing to the facts much more faithfully than did Mr. Stone, Mr. Frankenheimer did create scenes and circumstances for dramatic effect that hadn't taken place as pictured.
In "Primary Colors," Mr. Nichols has avoided the kind of criticism that Mr. Stone and to a lesser degree Mr. Frankenheimer encountered with the release of their political films, by being open and out front about what they did.
It can be argued, as it was widely voiced concerning "JFK," especially, and even "Nixon," that the documentary techniques used in those two Stone films preyed on the ignorance and gullibility of young viewers who weren't around in the 1960s and 1970s when the true Kennedy and Nixon dramas unfolded.
All the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's assassination got a lease on life as a result of "JFK," which featured some of them. Mr. Stone even permitted himself a tie-in in "Nixon" to a plot to kill Kennedy that may have convinced more than one viewer that it could have been true.
A whimsical approach
But the film version of "Primary Colors" has none of the conspiratorial heavy-handedness of either "JFK" or "Nixon." While the film leaves no doubt that Mr. Travolta is portraying Mr. Clinton, it is done in a whimsical way for the most part, and will be seen by most viewers as a story of the recent past about which they are familiar. It does not introduce the members of a new generation to a piece of political history that is not part of their own experience.
As close to the bone as "Primary Colors" comes to Mr. Clinton and his proved or alleged character flaws, the movie is first of all and clearly entertainment. While it does preach in its way about the corrupting nature of politics, it never takes itself as seriously as did the two Stone efforts.
For this reason alone, questions about whether Mr. Clinton will be damaged politically by the movie's release at this particular time are silly. The president has much more to fear from independent counsel Ken Starr, and from the testimony of the various women about his behavior, than he does from look-alike John Travolta and his Clinton-like antics on the silver screen.
Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.
Pub Date: 3/30/98