A modern immorality tale with a keen, observant edge, “Primary Colors” can hardly help but fascinate as an exceedingly rare example of a film a clef. Frequently funny, wonderfully performed, eerily evocative of recent history and gratifyingly blunt in its assessment of what it takes to get to the top in modern American politics, pic also lacks something crucial at its center that prevents it from being an entirely credible portrait of its subject. Speculation about the film’s commercial prospects has rightly centered on a number of highly unpredictable factors, including the public’s customary aversion to political movies, the burnout factor on the subject of presidential scandals and a suspicion that recent history may have outstripped everything on view here. But curiosity, John Travolta’s star power, heavy press coverage on and off the entertainment pages and fact that the film is undeniably entertaining should propel it to hefty domestic grosses; foreign outlook is less encouraging.
Mike Nichols and Elaine May have made a shrewd adaptation of the “Anonymous” bestselling 1996 novel about the first Clinton presidential campaign. Although the filmmakers have taken every precaution to label their work fiction, what they have, in fact, wrought would seem to represent a rare instance of a major feature film so closely mirroring the behavior of contemporary players on the national scene that audiences will more or less accept it as the truth, even if cosmetic details have been altered. The very audacity of this gesture is itself impressive, and the sense that one is watching only slightly distorted doubles for the genuine articles casts a peculiar, and at times unnerving, spell.
Coming from Nichols and May, one might have expected a more sustained satiric treatment of the political process and unseemly shenanigans indulged in by the presidential candidate and his inner circle. But while they can’t resist the impulse to poke fun at their characters’ peccadilloes, they have clearly been more drawn to using the opportunity to seriously assess and, at times, lament the course of American electoral politics and the contorted standards by which aspirants for office are judged, embraced or cast aside.
Opening scenes are near-brilliant in their precise focus and nuanced layering. After a vastly amusing demonstration of the candidate’s assortment of hand-shaking styles, attention settles upon Gov. Jack Stanton (Travolta), from an unspecified Southern state, as he promotes his interest in adult literacy by sitting in with some minority students in New York. After listening to a black man affectingly recount his shame over his underachieving academic career, Stanton weighs in with a moving narrative about his own illiterate uncle.
When Stanton’s story is shortly revealed privately as a crock, the politician’s ability to be simultaneously empathetic, sincere, inspirational, cynical and mendacious is revealed in a stroke, and when the followup scene casually shows that Stanton’s hidden agenda all along was to have a quickie with the class’s pratfalling female teacher, the film indicates its potential as a densely textured portrait of a supremely persuasive manipulator of everyone who enters his sphere of influence.
Facing his first public hurdle on the road to the Democratic nomination, the New Hampshire primary, Stanton succeeds in convincing the skeptical Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the bright grandson of a great civil rights pioneer, to become his deputy campaign manager. Taking charge of a motley bunch of amateur workers, this young black man becomes satisfied that the warm, enthusiastic Stanton really does care about the people, that he believes in something, that his election will change history in a favorable manner.
Invaluable to Stanton are his attractive and bracingly frank wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), who manages to be amazingly effective in her public support of her husband even when he behaves in the most lowdown ways, and his close adviser Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), a self-proclaimed redneck who doesn’t miss a trick when it comes to grabbing a competitive advantage but bluntly identifies his boss’s Achilles heel: “The woman thing, that’s the killer.”
As the battle of New Hampshire, which occupies the film’s first 80 minutes, heats up, Stanton and his staff have to contend with several threatening (and curiously familiar) charges, notably an arrest during a Vietnam War protest and subsequent string-pulling to expunge it from the record, and allegations of adultery centering on some tape recordings purportedly revealing an affair between Stanton and his wife’s former hairdresser.
In order to dig up all the dirt before anyone else does, the team brings in an old friend of the family and chief of staff, the tenacious Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), a sassy, upfront lesbian who knows where all the bodies are buried or has ways of finding out. Navigating through all the treacherous reefs and shoals, the initially little-known candidate performs well in debates and closes his campaign with a highly effective appearance before some out-of-work maritime union members.
Remaining hour takes Stanton through Florida with a side trip to New York. When the candidate who beat him in New Hampshire drops out of the race after a heart attack and is replaced by an honorable old party veteran, Gov. Fred Picker of Florida (Larry Hagman), Holden dives in to identify the ugly skeleton in his closet. How the Stantons will use her findings, however, will determine for her if they are still the idealists she came to love so many years before, or whether they have instead become ruthless, rationalizing politicians like everyone else.
Nichols conveys all this with deft, incisive strokes, never letting his or the viewer’s attention stray far from the essentials, even as he keeps many balls in the air and continually reinforces his central themes in varied and subtle ways. At the same time, the detail work is uncanny, his trademark touch for the telling character trait ever in evidence.
Travolta’s warmth and expansiveness effectively amplify and embellish the likable and personable side of Stanton. It’s easy to see, in the star’s enthusiastic performance, why people quickly warm to Stanton, and how he’s able to charm, cajole and seduce so many of those who cross his path.
But because the actor, with his salt-and-pepper crop of hair, somewhat paunchy physique and soft, raspy voice, has been able so uncannily to impersonate the real President, one is also forcibly reminded of what is missing from his characterization. And that is, to be blunt, intellectual distinction, the Rhodes Scholar side to the man, the voracious craving for knowledge and insight that, when linked with his not-unrelated physical appetites and ambition, can represent the first step toward an understanding of a man of such accomplishment.
Without it, Travolta’s Stanton is too much just a Southern hick with an unusual common touch. With curiosity high as to how offensive the Stanton characterization might be to Clinton himself, one could easily imagine that the absence of his obvious intelligence, rather than the inclusion of any of his flaws, would represent the most grievous insult.
Serving as the viewer’s window onto the hardball court of take-no-prisoners politics, Henry Burton is a cleverly conceived character quietly but adroitly brought to life by British stage thesp Lester. Thompson does a bang-up job as the politician’s wife who’s nearly as good an actor as her husband, Thornton is dead-on as the crafty James Carville equivalent and Bates would steal every scene she’s in if the other actors weren’t as good as they are.
In contrast to the high-powered leading performers, Tierney and Hagman make strong impressions by underplaying. John Vargas dominates an intense scene as an ailing drug dealer who delivers damning testimony against Stanton’s opponent.
Despite the disillusionment and cynicism “Primary Colors” depicts, the film itself is not cynical, nor is it an indictment. The picture, which has a tremendous professional sheen, actually ends, satisfyingly, on a note of cautious optimism, however couched it may be in a rueful awareness of the cost in tattered beliefs and ruined lives that Stanton’s journey has tallied.