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
Billy Bob Thornton
Governor Fred Picker
Mykel T. Williamson
Jack Mandela Washington
Kristoffer Ryan Winters