Primary Colors (1998)
After the media feeding frenzy over that certain White House intern, there's something oddly refreshing about *Primary Colors*, which, (wink wink) isn't *really* about our President. Based on the roman a clef by Joe Klein (aka Anonymous), which, in more innocent times (way back in 1996) was considered quite scandalous (before we learned *way* more than we ever wanted to know about the commander-in-chief's alleged poling of the populace) *Primary Colors* follows southern governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) as he mounts a campaign for the presidential nomination amid rumors of sexual dalliances and draft dodging.
What's refreshing about director Mike Nichols' movie is the sense of unguardedness about the characters, something only achievable because *Primary Colors* is, for all its similarities to reality, a fiction. D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant documentary *The War Room* (1993) was more interesting, more insightful, a true behind the scenes, fly-on-the-wall perspective on political campaigning, but its real life stars could never be as guileless as their fictional counterparts -- fresh and full of ideals as they were, the folks running Clinton's first campaign were still pretty darn smart and wily. You never saw the future first lady throw keys at her husband's head, or swear like a sailor at the very sight of the man who couldn't help but wallow knee deep in the sins of the flesh (too many donuts, too many women).
Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson) embodies what *Primary Colors* is about, and it isn't scandal, or political spinning or unbridled ambition, but about compromise, and settling, about the ethical debate between moral absolutism and a utilitarian consequentialism. As unflattering as *Primary Colors* might be to the Clintons, it gives them (or their fictional counterparts, at least) some credit for trying. It's hard to imagine their Republican opponents engaging in ethical debates at all -- there's still a tiny touch of wide-eyed idealism about the movie and the characters, a recognition that moral choices are only hard for those who have morals to begin with.
Representing the lost cause of moral absolutism is fresh young Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), preppy grandson of a famous civil rights leader. He's shanghaied into the campaign, but he's a true believer, and, for a while at least, believes that Stanton is the real thing, a man of the people, for the people. Henry is mighty bland compared to the colorful characters in Stanton's inner circle: good ol' boy political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), the "Dustbuster," a raging idealist who cleans up the dirt on her friend the candidate, but tries to keep her own hands clean while she does it.
Travolta has the Clinton thing down -- the voice, that throaty, choking-back-emotion tenor with a tremor, the slippery charm and charisma, the sincerity and cynicism, the gleam of purpose in those dewy eyes, the insatiable appetite for attention. It's a fine performance, irritating and ingratiating, promising and disappointing -- so like the real thing. Even Stanton's wife doesn't know when to believe him anymore, and, like everyone else, she's forced to cast her vote based on the man she hopes her husband can be, and throw up her hands when he falls far short of expectations.
Thompson's Susan is dynamic, ferocious, foul-mouthed, ambitious and frustrated at having hitched her wagon to such an inconstant star. Whether it's the American accent or the characterization, Susan speaks through clenched teeth, as if those teeth were the last barricade to be breached by the cynicism and political practicality that she's forced to spit out because she can't quite swallow it herself. Elaine May's witty script saves some of the best zingers for the embattled, cuckolded Susan -- when she lashes out, it's satisfying, and evident just who is the better, smarter half of this political, marital union.
The ethical crisis (following an assortment of bimbo crises) that sparks the soul-searching Henry to question his involvement in the campaign is almost an afterthought -- little more than a resolution to the character's narrative arc. The more interesting ethical debates are sprinkled throughout the movie as sneaky little occasions that turn out to be quite momentous from a personal, rather than political, perspective -- situations when ideals are compromised with seemingly little thought, as if the sheer momentum of the political campaign swept away all morals, negated all character and soul, dragging the candidate and his operatives so close to the goal that they hardly remember why they wanted to get there in the first place. But *Primary Colors* is never unremittingly cynical -- Stanton, despite his flaws, does remember: when he has a heart to heart with the counterman at a donut shop, when he gets swept away in a reverie of unforgotten purpose, when he regrets his own moral lapses but forges ahead, unapologetically, anyway.
In the end, *Primary Colors* is entertaining but insubstantial: it doesn't have much to say that the American people don't already know about politics, or our weirdly dysfunctional style of celebrity democracy, or moral compromise. The movie doesn't shatter any illusions that were still intact, nor does it lean especially hard on the pres, the press, or the people. That scandals buzz around Jack Stanton like flies says something either about the candidate or about the flies, but *Primary Colors* doesn't really want to commit to saying much about either. Like Robert Bennett said about that legal brief (you know the one), it's like cotton candy -- when you bite into it, there's nothing there.