If ever there was an Op-Ed movie--a movie destined to be written about in an "elevated" realm beyond just the movie pages--it's Primary Colors. Thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, the Hollywood/Washington nexus has lifted this new Mike Nichols picture, based on the 1996 bestseller by Joe Klein, into a higher stratosphere than it deserves. In much the same way that people mistook the "importance" of the movie All the President's Men for the importance of the actual events at its source, Primary Colors is being puffed by circumstance. We are told in interview after interview, on TV, and in the papers and slick magazines (including a Time cover), that Primary Colors is about "honor." But clear away all this state-of-the-union blather, and what Primary Colors is really about is the itch of office. What it's saying is this: Our greatest presidents have jumbo libidos, and it's not an aberration; it's an integral part of who they are. You can't have one without the other. Get used to it.
Klein's novel, authored as "Anonymous" and published in February 1996, was a sharp, quick read--the work of a political reporter (New York, Newsweek, and currently The New Yorker) who knew the intimacies of Clinton's Democratic primary campaign in 1992 and made his readers feel like "insiders." It's a roman a clef written by an outraged idealist but, because Klein--whose identity as the author was revealed last year--brings his ambivalence about the quasi-Clinton character Gov. Jack Stanton into the mix, the book seems closer to our own conflicted feelings about politicians than the black-and-white portrayals of standard political pulp.
The movie of Primary Colors, which was scripted by Elaine May, tries to be both wised-up and idealistic. It's at its best when it's just on the cusp of lampoon. But clearly Nichols and May are aiming "higher." Hollywood has a habit of mucking up comedy with civic-minded goo, and at about the halfway point in Primary Colors, the goo takes over. This is the stuff that will get the movie on the Op-Ed pages, but it doesn't do much for us.
In a way, I suspect most audiences watching Primary Colors will be way ahead of it--not just in terms of the latest twists and turns in the Clinton-o-rama but also in terms of their own moral savvy. After all, it's already been pretty much established that a large chunk of the American public couldn't care less if Clinton has a well-oiled zipper as long as the economy is improving, crime is down, etc. Because of its time lag in getting to the screen, Primary Colors seems dated not so much because of its plot as because of its attitudes. It's preaching to the converted--or at least to the disinterested.
The film is refracted through the eyes of the author's surrogate--Henry Burton (the British stage actor Adrian Lester), a black congressional aide whose grandfather was a civil rights icon. Wooed by Jack Stanton, the governor of an unnamed southern state who is lagging in the Democratic presidential primaries, Henry warily joins up and becomes a true believer.
He's a potentially fascinating character--the post-boomer political idealist. In an exchange with Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson), the president's wife, he says to her, "You had Kennedy. I want to be part of something that is history." Henry allows himself to be mesmerized by Stanton because he recognizes the good he is trying to accomplish. As the governor's serial sex scandals and dirty tricks pile up, he finds it increasingly difficult to remain enraptured, but he also comes of age. Henry isn't just the author's surrogate; he's ours too. And his rite of passage is presented as a coming-of-age parable: He becomes an adult when he understands that his heroes have clay feet.
Henry's counterpart is Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), the governor's confidante and political troubleshooter, who once worked for McGovern and still has her counterculture credentials and her brass. She's the outraged idealist as '60s survivor. Beneath all her bluster is an innocence to match Henry's--she wants to work with someone who really cares. That's why she and Henry become soul mates.
But Henry, although played well by Lester, doesn't occupy the movie's center. He's too blandly "symbolic" a character to take hold of our imagination; he represents the losing of an innocence we already lost. Instead the center, if it exists at all, belongs to Stanton. Travolta has chosen to play him with marked Clinton drawl and body language, and the result is a charming, eerie weightlessness (even though Travolta added 20 pounds for the role). By making the Clinton-Stanton connection so obvious, the performance takes on the trappings of revue-sketch impersonation. Stanton is a cartoon, a cartoon that feels pain and wants to help people. This is a promising touch: Because politics can hollow out even the best politicians, maybe all we can expect from them is a kind of deeply felt charade. The shimmering unreality of Jack Stanton in Primary Colors makes more psychological sense than we might care to admit.
Yet for this movie to really work as something more than a sly spree, the governor, for all his messing around, also has to seem heroic to us. We need to be mesmerized right along with Henry, and we're not. And I think that's because Nichols is such a slick cynic that he can't portray a world in which goodness really shines. The rubes in this movie remain rubes. At a Stanton Thanksgiving party at the governor's mansion, we see his cracker buddies swarming the vast lawn, and the sight is not pretty. Later, when Henry watches Stanton on television in a diner crowded with regular folks, the patrons seem stunted, unwashed. Nichols has made a movie about a politician with "the common touch," but he himself lacks it. Primary Colors looks like a movie about bleeding-heart liberals made by a Republican fat cat.
If Stanton was a real spellbinder, we might feel more conflicted about his transgressions. If we could see more evidence of his good works, his bad works might not seem so prominent. But most of the time he's just being a pol--putting on a yarmulke to get the Jewish vote in Florida, getting all teary-eyed and sincere in his televised primary debates, and so on. When Henry's radical journalist girlfriend (Rebecca Walker) tells him Stanton is just a "cracker who hasn't done piss-ass for the black man in his own state," there's no evidence she's far wrong. (The film never explores a great subject: the ways in which blacks allow themselves to be manipulated by white politicians.) When Stanton delivers a eulogy near the end for a fallen comrade--whose fall he precipitated--Nichols barely shows us the oration. We don't get to see how Stanton pulls genuine feeling from his own hypocrisy. And if we don't see this sort of thing, then what is there about this character to make us woozy? He's a spellbinder without a spell. Even the "common" touches surrounding Stanton come across as gross. When we see him with his face stuffed with doughnuts or his fingers sticky with ribs, he's not a down-home man of the people, he's just a big bubba.
I don't think this is the way Stanton was meant to come across in Primary Colors, but Nichols' elitism probably got the better of him. He can't connect up to the life force in all that grossness. Stanton doesn't even have much of a family context; his young son pops up briefly, and also his mother (Diane Ladd), but they have almost no emotional weight. His wife, Susan, is the film's only family-style triumph, and that's mostly because Emma Thompson is expert at showing how this politician's wife balances pragmatism with rage. She's a sharpie who knows the score about her husband's philandering, but also recognizes the reason to stay in the game. She can deliver a stinging slap to Stanton in full view of Henry but--and here's what makes Thompson's performance special--she also shows us how this woman can still remain in thrall to him.
There are other expert performances, including Larry Hagman's Gov. Picker, who gives Stanton a dose of his own "common touch" medicine; and Billy Bob Thornton's Richard Jemmons, Stanton's political advisor who fulfills the description Klein gave him in the novel: "He looked like he was sired during the love scene in Deliverance."
But Nichols never brings all these actors together into any kind of coherent social vision. Primary Colors lacks the buzz and crackle of observed experience; you never feel like you've been plunged into the workings of a real campaign. It's a sham movie about a sham world.
Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Elaine May. Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Adrian Lester. Opens Friday.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.