Screenplay : Elaine May (based on the novel by Anonymous)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : John Travolta (Gov. Jack Stanton), Emma Thompson (Susan Stanton), Billy Bob Thornton (Richard Jemmons), Kathy Bates (Libby Holden), Adrian Lester (Henry Burton), Maura Tierney (Daisy Green), Larry Hagman (Gov. Fred Picker), Diane Ladd (Mamma Stanton), Paul Guilfoyle (Howard Ferguson), Rebecca Walker (March)
"Primary Colors" opens and closes with images of hearty handshakes. The handshakes at the beginning of the film are introductory, as an unknown Democratic candidate named Jack Stanton (John Travolta) from a forgotten Southern state is trying to ingratiate himself with potential voters. At the end of the film, that same unknown candidate is now President of the United States, and the handshakes are congratulatory, as he thanks all the men and women who worked behind the scenes to get him to the top.
I don't mind giving away the ending because I think we all knew it already. No matter how much director Mike Nichols tries to deny it, Jack Stanton is (or will be seen by the majority of the public as) a thinly-veiled personage of Bill Clinton, and we all know how his 1992 presidential campaign ended. In between the handshakes that open and close the film, "Primary Colors" weaves the tale of everything that goes on -- both known and unknown to the public -- in order to get Stanton to the Oval Office.
There is no sense in denying the connection between the film and real life. If Nichols had really wanted to disassociate Stanton from Clinton, why did he have Travolta not only impersonate Clinton in voice and manner, but also put on weight and streak his hair gray? There are a million opportunities to separate fact from fiction, and yet the movie never takes those routes, and the results might be confusing to those who aren't sure where the separation lies.
The movie is based on the novel by Joe Klein, a reporter for "Newsweek" whose position as author of the book remained anonymous for six months before "The Washington Post" ousted him. A great deal of the book is pure fiction, but a great deal more of it is uncannily reflective of the actual 1992 presidential campaign. Why else would it have stirred up all the controversy it did when it was first published two years ago?
Both the book and the movie are told not from Stanton's perspective, but through the eyes of Henry Burton (English stage actor Adrian Lester), a campaign manager based on George Stephanopoulos, who is now a media consultant for ABC. Burton is a young, idealistic political worker whose grandfather was a great civil rights leader (unlike Stephanopoulos, Burton is black). He joins Stanton's team because he truly believes that Stanton is a winner, someone who really cares about the common people and the issues facing them.
Among the other characters are Stanton's shrewd and sometimes icy wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), obviously based on Hillary Clinton; Richard Jemmons, the crafty, obnoxious redneck James Carville clone played by Billy Bob Thornton; Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), based on campaign advisor Mandy Grunwald; and last but certainly not least, Libby Holden, the character played by Kathy Bates based on "the dust buster" Betsey Wright, who spent most the '92 campaign digging up dirt in order to protect Clinton from "bimbo eruptions."
In the weeks before the film opened, the question on everybody's mind was whether it would remain true to the angry, indicting portrait of the Clinton-like character painted by the novel. There was a great deal of speculation that Hollywood, which so infatuates Clinton and is so infatuated with him, would be unable to deliver a $65 million movie that makes him look bad. Would Nichols' attendance of Clinton-thrown dinner parties at Martha's Vineyard taint his ability to be critical of the president, even in this fictional form? Would Thornton, an Arkansas native and big Clinton supporter who actually asked the President's permission to appear in the film, try to make his Carville character look more decent that the conniving, sexist pig in the book?
In short, the movie is no doubt a softened version of the book. Of course, how you feel about Bill Clinton will greatly taint your response to the film's lighter look at his fictional doppleganger. Even Travolta, in a interview for "George" magazine, said, "You have to be dead not to see that the film favors Clinton."
"Primary Colors" can be seen as favoring Clinton because it shifts the focus (or more accurately, blame) off the individual and puts it on the political system. The movie goes to great pains to ensure we see it is the system that is truly corrupt, and Stanton himself is simply a flawed human being caught up in it and forced to play by its rules. When Henry is threatening to quit at the end of the film, it's not because he's tired of Stanton's morally reprehensible behavior and constant lying, but because he's tired of playing "the game."
As "Primary Colors" makes clear, the blame lies with the cynical media and the disaffected public at large, which is more interested in the hair length of the candidate's wife than the candidate himself. The movie portrays Stanton as an imperfect, but nonetheless decent and caring man who has to work within a system of mud-slinging, back stabbing, and constant spin control in order to achieve a greater good. Of course, this is hardly a hidden agenda. Nichols has said in interviews, "It's about our process, and where we've brought it and it's brought us."
The problem with the movie-version of "Primary Colors" is that it never seems very sure of where it stands. The book was explicit in its indictment of Clinton (or his clone or whatever), but the movie, while keeping most of the storyline the same and many of the scenes literally verbatim, still manages to tiptoe around the issue of personal responsibility.
When Stanton is informed that a 17-year-old black girl is claiming he is the father of her unborn child, he slams the wall and says, "I just can't get a break, can I?" Never mind that he did sleep with her and the child could very well be his (according to the book, it is his, but the movie never makes it clear). The movie portrays this situation as just another piece of tabloid garbage intended to derail him. With the exact same dialogue, this could have been a thoroughly satirical scene, but it just doesn't play out in that manner.
Another problem with the film is its dramatic structure and how it develops the relationships between its characters. The film makes a point to keep the marriage between Jack and Susan confusing and ill-defined. Since the story is told through the eyes of Henry, I suppose it's impossible to know completely what's going on between the candidate and his wife since he's not privy to their private conversations. Still, it makes for frustrating viewing because we never know for sure if they still love each other, or if they're just playing the game for the sake of politics.
However, some of the most egregious character development occurs between the campaign staffers. For instance, twice we see Henry and Daisy in bed together, although it does nothing to serve the story. Nothing is suggested beforehand that they might sleep together, and the relationship is never carried through to any kind of conclusion. A similar situation happens between Libby (who's a lesbian), and a young, attractive campaign volunteer played by Stacy Edwards (who was so brilliant in "In the Company of Men"). Libby comes into the office, tells some other staffers that she wants this particular volunteer working for her, and the next thing we know, they're living together in a loving, sexual relationship. Hello? Where did that come from and what purpose does it serve?
However, despite these failures, "Primary Colors" has some truly funny moments and interesting insight into the political process. Its indictment of the mass media is sometimes effective, although it's a tired, worn-out accusation that newspapers and television are behind all the world's ills. Although the movie skillful depicts the dangers, pitfalls, and all-around messiness of running for public office in this country, it seems as a whole to be little more than another nail in the coffin of personal responsibility.
©1998 James Kendrick