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Primary Colors

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Primary Colors

Starring: John Travolta, Emma Thompson
Director: Mike Nichols
Rated: R
RunTime: 123 Minutes
Release Date: March 1998
Genres: Comedy, Drama


*Also starring: Adrian Lester, Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney, Kathy Bates, Larry Hagman, Paul Guilfoyle, Caroline Aaron, Larry King, Rebecca Walker



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

"Hitler never looked at another woman after Eva Braun. Does that make him any better than Jefferson, Roosevelt and Kennedy?" While this quote by a member of the presidential campaign team seems to signal that "Primary Colors" is pro- Clinton, the big question which viewers will toy with in their post-screening discussion with one another is whether this high-profile picture is balanced, favoring the president, or designed to smirch his reputation. Without question, Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is a stand-in for Mr. Clinton: every scene in this exploration of his primary election campaign evokes the pungency of Clinton's struggle for the top office and the difficulties he faced when confronted with charges of womanizing. Given the fact that Mike Nichols, who directed the work and who teams up with long-time collaborator Elaine May (who wrote the script based on journalist Joe Klein's novel of the same name), has always been considered a Clinton supporter, we wonder how he is able to smudge the former southern governor's reputation as much as he does.

"Primary Colors" will disappoint those whose exposure to political film runs exclusively to stories like "The Day of the Jackal," "The Candidate," "Dave," and any previous offering that offers either comic sketches or paranoid portraits of the man in the Oval Office. Its 140 minutes are devoted to a careful inquiry into the nature of politics and shows more than any other film to date all that must go into a primary battle-- the heartaches, the exposure of one's private life, the disappointments, the betrayals. This makes for involving storytelling for a targeted audience of educated people willing to listen careful to some precious dialogue and draw conclusions on subtle points of interpretation. It shows the current president, who is here given the name of Jack Stanton, has good features and flaws like anyone lower than the saints, and one emerges with a new respect for a guy who was chief executive of a relatively backwater state, largely unknown to all but political mavens.

Looking and sounding so much like Bill Clinton that one can almost swear that he is seeing the chief executive himself, John Travolta turns in a dramatic albeit understated portrait of a winner who really does listen to the voice of the working class, who is a touch-feely person who thoroughly enjoys physical contact of all kinds, and who despite some exaggerated gestures of sympathy with those who are down on their luck has a genuine compassion for ordinary people. The story begins with efforts by the Stanton campaign people to draft Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) into the crusade, knowing that this eloquent, charismatic African-American--who is also the grandson of a great civil rights leader--could do marvelous things for the candidate's image. Unsure whether he wants to accept the prestigious position, Burton decides to observe the man at work and is taken in by Stanton's empathy with the hapless students at an adult literacy center, where he tells the gathering a largely phony story of how his Uncle Charlie won the Medal of Honor but declined an impressive job offer because he was ashamed to admit his illiteracy. We are quickly introduced to other members of the staff, including Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), who is the James Carville stand-in, the articulate Daisy, who schedules the appointments, and the "dust-buster" Libby (Kathy Bates), a dynamo lesbian given the mandate of finding dirt on Stanton's opponent.

So much of the film comes out of recent newspaper headlines that the movie becomes too predictable in spots, as when a blond bimbette shows up on national TV to play a tape implicating the candidate in an affair. In a bizarre development, a simple black man who had been a friend of Stanton accuses his pal of getting the man's daughter pregnant.

A central moral issue raised by the movie is whether it is ethical or even wise to run a negative campaign. Some, like Libby, say whether it would benefit Stanton or not, the candidate should avoid attacking his opponent's personal life. (When Stanton follows the advice and assails his competitor's stand strictly on the issue of social security, his popularity ostensibly rises.) The only scene which calls for a leap of audience credibility deals with Libby's fate, an unusual outcome particularly considering the outspoken woman's apparent thick skin. Kathy Bates steals the show with a remarkable performance, one that goes over the top when her character points a loaded gun at the genitals of a sleazeball who engineered a doctored tape on a national TV interview program.

Adrian Lester as Henry Burton, Stanton's most important liaison with the public, remains the center of this epic film, a man whose ambiguousness toward the governor mirrors the equivocal feelings of large segments of the American public about President Clinton. Emma Thompson shows that an English actress can easily assume the role of an ambitious, smart American First Lady, and fine performances are turned in by the ensemble of strategists and adversaries including Paul Guilfoyle (who brings Burton on board), and Larry Hagman as Stanton's ultimate opponent, a man who seems without a single flaw but whose major blemish is discovered and ethically exploited. Rated R. Running time: 140 minutes.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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