Primary Colors

You don't see him fucking. No oral sex. Nothing. I say this to deter those who want to catch John Travolta impersonating Bill Clinton in Primary Colors for the cheap thrill of watching Hollywood play out their fantasies about the prez and Monica Lewinsky or Paula Jones or Gennifer Flowers or even Hillary. Back off. No one, least of all Travolta and director Mike Nichols, is gettin' jiggy wit' it.

Deep dish, yes; pandering, no. It's the suppositions we make about public figures that makes Primary Colors such wicked, whip smart fun. Officially, it's not about Clinton. Neither is the 1996 novel by Anonymous, who was later unmasked as columnist Joe Klein. Never mind that Travolta, for his $18 million salary, salts his hair, shows his paunch and drawls just like Big Bubba, His Jack Stanton is the governor of a Southern state (Arkansas is never mentioned) who enters the 1992 presidential primaries (same as Clinton) with a bossy wife (same as Clinton), a dodgy draft record (same as Clinton), an ability to gorge on doughnuts (same as Clinton) and an inability to keep his dick in his pants (same as. . . well, you get the idea).

A choice cast and a cheeky script by Elaine May help Nichols enlarge on the book's merry skewering of the political process. This social satire puts a human face on its targets by showing how gossip treated as gospel reduces us all, from the scorpion press that feeds on character flaws to a hypocritical electorate that doesn't allow for any.

Ouch! Doesn't Nichols know that politics don't play at the multiplex -- look at Wag the Dog. Also, this $65 million film is more than two hours long and packs in enough characters with real-life counterparts that you may need a skeleton key -- "Primary Colors" for Dummies.

Besides Travolta, whose uncanny mimicry of Clinton starts as caricature and builds into full-blooded characterization, there's Emma Thompson as Susan Stanton, Jack's Hillary-esque wife; Billy Bob Thornton as Richard Jemmons, a redneck strategist modeled on James Carville; and Larry (J.R.) Hagman as Fred Picker, a political threat to Gov. Stanton in the Ross Perot mode.

Both the book and the movie view Jack through the eyes of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the grandson of a black civil-rights leader (read: Martin Luther King Jr.). Jack persuades Henry to head the campaign by appealing to his idealism, much like Clinton appealed to George Stephanopoulos'. Henry's family thinks he's selling out. Sometimes Henry does, too, especially in the face of the candidate's libido -- it is hinted that he knocked up a black teenager and asked a relative to lie about it -- and a ruthless pragmatism that drives one loyalist to suicide (read: Vince Foster).

Newcomer Lester, 27, shows the kick Henry gets from riding herd on a presidential juggernaut, whether it's parrying with good ol' boy Richard (Thornton is superbly sly in too small a role) or indulging in campaign sex with consultant Daisy Green (a wasted Maura Tierney). The film skirts Henry's night of sin with Susan that's in the book. Lester and Thompson, both British, seem as uneasy with their American accents as with their scenes together. It's with Travolta that both actors hit their stride. Susan slaps Jack when phone tapes link him to Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides doing a dead-on Gennifer Flowers), yet Susan is there to hold his hand on TV. Thompson artfully embodies Klein's astute take on Susan: "She was drawing attention to her perfection, which only served to remind people of her husband's imperfection -- it was a vengeful act."

Henry recoils when Jack cuts moral corners. "You don't think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president?" asks Jack, who knows the value of cornball charm. Travolta is electrifying, not just in persuading us that Jack feels our pain but in revealing the candidate's cold ambition.

Whatever happens to Clinton, Primary Colors emerges as a big winner by refusing to be a vendetta or a valentine. Nichols, in peak form, knows that caustic comedy can't draw blood when the characters are robbed of complexity. Kathy Bates scores a personal triumph as Libby Holden, the fixer who handles bimbo eruptions much like Betsey Wright did for Clinton. "Talk to me, shit for brains," shouts Libby as she rejoins the Stanton team after downtime in the booby hatch. Libby, a pistol-packing lesbian, harbors more idealism than Henry under her cynical shell. Her betrayal by the Stantons brings the film a startling, tragic dimension. The academy should start engraving an Oscar for Bates; she is the film's grieving heart.

Nothing is tied up neatly in Primary Colors. It's just as hard to make a final call on Stanton as it is on Clinton. Maybe that's why this provocative film touches a nerve. It's so funny it hurts.

From The Archives Issue 784: April 16, 1998
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