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 Jack Stanton – 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 Stanton’s campaign (His role equates more or less to that of George Stephanopoulos in real life).
Driven by his need to believe in Stanton as much as the belief itself, Burton creates 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 Burton knows pretty much from the outset but only fully realises after being thrust into a world populated with remarkably diverse characters.
Burton sets up headquarters in a town enchantingly named Mammoth Falls. Stanton’s team includes adviser Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), who swiftly exposes himself to a female campaign worker. When Burton remonstrates with him, he tries to pull rank.
“I’m probably blacker than you,” he drawls. “I got some slave in me. I can feel it”. (Reviewers generally supposed Jemmons to be inspired by Clinton strategist James Carville, though the real Carville is nowhere near as gruesome).
Like Clinton, Stanton faces allegations about his activities during the Vietnam war – in Clinton’s case, avoiding the draft. Then one Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides) releases tapes of sexually suggestive conversations between herself and the governor. During Clinton’s campaign, Gennifer Flowers came forward with similar accusations.
Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson) calls in “dustbuster” Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) – an idealistic, unstable, no-bullshit, lesbian problem-solver – to help protect her husband’s image.
“Our Jackie’s done some pretty stupid things in his life,” Holden growls. “He’s poked his pecker in some sorry trash bins.” It has been suggested that her character was inspired by elements of Vince Foster and Betsey Wright, Clinton’s chief of staff. The latter memorably described the frequent sex scandals buffeting her boss as “bimbo eruptions”.
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 Fred Picker (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 of the truest political portraits in years, as well as a fine piece of drama.
Despite good reviews and some fine performances, Primary Colors didn’t set the box office alight – perhaps because the history to which it was trying to allude was overtaken by events.
Demonstrating yet again that truth is stranger than fiction, this film came out when a far bigger scandal was consuming Clinton. The 1998 allegations of a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky would result in an investigation of Clinton’s personal life and impeachment proceedings. By the standards of 1998 Clinton scandals, 1992’s bimbo eruptions and a spot of alleged draft-dodging looked tame.
Governor Jack Stanton
Billy Bob Thornton
Governor Fred Picker
Mykel T. Williamson
Jack Mandela Washington
Kristoffer Ryan Winters