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Primary Colors (1998)

After five years of movies featuring surrogate Bill Clintons ranging from benevolent (Dave, The American President) to vengeful (Air Force One) to malignant (Absolute Power, Wag The Dog), this was the first of the lot that didn’t pretend to be about anything but the man himself.

Primary Colors is a movie about a fictionalised Bill Clinton, but it’s also about the state of American politics and America in general.

Expertly adapted from the Joe “Anonymous” Klein-written novel by director Mike Nichols and writer/reunited-comedy-partner Elaine May, Primary Colors follows John Travolta, playing a Southern governor with presidential aspirations, as he moves through the electoral process, battling opponents and scandals along the way.

The film works in large part due to the decision to tell the story from the point of view of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the grandson of a famous civil rights leader, who is almost unwillingly roped into managing Travolta’s campaign.

Driven by his need to believe in Travolta as much as the belief itself, Lester creates both a three-dimensional character and an effective template for anyone who has ever wanted to believe that a politician, for once, really represents his or her beliefs.

Things, of course, turn out to be more complex than that, something Lester knows pretty much from the outset but only fully realises after being thrust into a world populated with remarkably diverse characters.

There’s Billy Bob Thornton’s James Carville-esque advisor; Kathy Bates’ idealistic, unstable, no-bullshit, lesbian problem-solver; and Emma Thompson’s intelligent, ambitious, supportive-but-put-upon, tough-but-deferential would-be first lady, all of whom operate with a single goal in mind: putting personal qualms aside for the greater good. Mostly.

Though she initially comes off as a shrill caricature, it’s Bates’ dirt-suppresser who, when called upon to be a dirt-provider against last-minute candidate Larry Hagman, provides the movie’s soul.

Strip away the beautifully drawn characters and sustained tone of plausible absurdity – done so much better here than in the shallow, cynical Wag The Dog (1997) – and Primary Colors may be nothing more than an elaborate explanation and justification of the lesser-of-two-evils approach to politics, with Clinton-by-way-of-Travolta emerging as ultimately well-meaning underneath all those conspicuous warts.

But it’s also one the truest political portraits in years, as well as a fine piece of drama.

Governor Jack Stanton
John Travolta
Susan Stanton
Emma Thompson
Richard Jemmons
Billy Bob Thornton
Henry Burton
Adrian Lester
Daisy
Maura Tierney
Howard Ferguson
Paul Guilfoyle
Governor Fred Picker
Larry Hagman
Libby Holden
Kathy Bates
Mamma Stanton
Diane Ladd
March
Rebecca Walker
Lucille Kaufman
Caroline Aaron
Fat Willie
Tommy Hollis
Izzy Rosenblatt
Rob Reiner
Arlen Sporken
Ben Jones
Uncle Charlie
J.C. Quinn
Miss Walsh
Allison Janney
Norman Asher
Robert Klein
Dewayne Smith
Mykel T. Williamson
Mitch
James Denton
Ruby
Leontine Guilliard
Tawana Carter
Monique Ridge
Brad Lieberman
Ned Eisenberg
Randy Culligan
Brian Markinson
Geraldo Rivera
Himself
Charlie Rose
Himself
Larry King
Himself
Sailorman Shoreson
O’Neal Compton
Lawrence Harris
Kevin Cooney
Martha Harris
Bonnie Bartlett
Charlie Martin
Chelcie Ross
Lorenzo Delgado
John Vargas
Eddie Reyes
Tony Shalhoub
Loretta
Bianca Lawson
Jimmy Ozio
Robert Cicchini
Jack Mandela Washington
Stan Davis
Sam
Harrison Young
Anthony Ramirez
Rolando Molina
Peter Goldsmith
Ross Benjamin
Jennifer Rogers
Stacy Edwards
Terry Hicks
Kristoffer Ryan Winters
Ella Louise
Susan Kussman
Amalee
Vickilyn Reynolds
Bart Nilson
Robert Symonds
Cashmere McLeod
Gia Carides
Doctor Beauregard
Robert Easton
Danny Scanlon
Scott Burkholder
Linda Feldstein
Darice Richman

Director
Mike Nichols