What the Movie Gets --and What It Doesn't

David Lauter, The Times' specialist editor, covered Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign

There are moments scattered through the new film "Primary Colors" that recall scenes of the 1992 presidential campaign with vivid clarity:

Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta), the Bill Clinton character at the heart of the story, talking at length with the night-shift counterman at a New Hampshire doughnut shop; bewildered staff members, new to big-time politics, trying vainly to figure out how to make their computers work; a street scene of self-absorbed New Yorkers, each pushing his or her own special interest, drowning out the candidate as he hopelessly tries to give a speech a few days before the state's primary.

The Mike Nichols film manages to convey much of the feel of a presidential campaign in its early days--the cheap hotel rooms and the lousy food, the absurd all-night hours, the offices staffed by the unemployed and the unemployable, the frenzied rushing about--often to no immediately discernible purpose.

Unfortunately, movie politics, like movie sex, can show the flailing bodies, but is not much of a substitute for the real thing.

"Primary Colors," for those who have missed the advance buildup, is adapted from the book by political columnist Joe Klein--a tell-all novel about Clinton's 1992 campaign that won bestseller status with a clever gimmick of anonymous publication boosted by the author's repeated lies about his involvement.

As with Klein's novel, the film traces the political adventures of the obscure governor of a small southern state as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.

As anyone who lived through the 1992 contest can attest, it was a contest so filled with bizarre characters and odd twists of plot that it cried out for novelization.

But looking at what portions of Clinton's strange epic made it onto the screen and what did not tells less about campaign 1992 than about the view of politics now rampant in America's popular culture and media--one that deprecates the cynicism of politicians but is, ironically, far more cynical about the process and the voters than are most of the practitioners themselves.

That cynicism receives its clearest expression about two-thirds of the way through the film when Stanton's rival, a former governor of Florida named Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), delivers a speech to a beautifully staged rally in Connecticut.

Politics has gone wrong, Picker tells his backers, because it is all about emotional manipulation. Candidates seek ever-shorter sound bites to whip up popular frenzy, rather than explain issues in detail. Cheapened by emotion, political debate has become less and less meaningful. The end result, he declares, is like professional wrestling: "It's staged, and it's fake and it doesn't mean anything."

Picker's speech encapsulates the prevailing wisdom among a certain slice of American opinion--a view from the elite that was voiced by H.L. Mencken more than half a century ago and continues to be shared by much of Hollywood, a large chunk of Manhattan and a goodly share of Washington's punditocracy.

Perhaps that is why candidates who appeal well to those precincts--the late Sen. Paul Tsongas was a prime example in 1992--routinely flop in most of the rest of the nation.

For if the Picker view were true, Bill Clinton would long ago have been returned to Arkansas as a loser.

Stanton, as presented by Travolta, is a roguish seducer--of women in his private life, of voters in his public pursuits--a sloppy, overweight good old boy whose too-short ties fail to cover his ample belly, whose eyes water empathetically at each person's tale of woe, but who consistently refuses to accept responsibility for his own misconduct.

All that makes for an amusing character. It is also a character who shares many of Clinton's most revolting qualities.

But the one-dimensional Stanton could not possibly have been elected President. Bill Clinton was, twice.

Travolta aptly mimics Clinton's voice and some of his mannerisms. Moreover, much as readers of the book amused themselves by matching up characters with their real-life analogues, viewers of the movie can spend enjoyable time noting Billy Bob Thornton's resemblance to James Carville and catching the cameos, now apparently de rigueur in political films, by media celebrities Larry King, Geraldo Rivera and Charlie Rose.

The problem is that the candidate, as portrayed in the film, is also a completely empty tub.

If Stanton has ever had a substantive thought--indeed, if he has had even a single moment of self-discipline or gravitas--the movie does not show it. Instead, all the focus and discipline in the Stanton team comes from the candidate's wife, Susan (Emma Thompson), who grasps some of the essence of Hillary Rodham Clinton without trying to ape her appearance.

In reality, however, what makes Bill Clinton such a fascinating character--and what has sustained his career--is precisely the duality the film misses.

Inside Clinton there is Billy the self-indulgent mama's boy, who always finds someone else to blame for his own failings. But there is also the dedicated student of public policy who triumphed in debates because he actually understood the details of issues far better than most of his opponents.

Part of Clinton is the undisciplined slob. Part is also the superb tactician who, to this day, can rattle off in detail the percentage by which he won or lost each precinct in his first race for Congress, nearly a generation ago.

What accounts for Clinton's mastery of politics--but also the constant roller-coaster of his presidency--is the tug and pull between those two sides of his nature. That tension is completely lacking in Travolta's character.

Unfortunately it is not just Stanton whom the movie portrays as vapid. So, too, are the voters.

Consider a scene, halfway through the film, in which Henry Burton (Adrian Lester)--the character modeled after George Stephanopoulos if he had been black--sits in a New Hampshire coffee shop watching voters as they watch Jack and Susan Stanton talk about their marriage on television.

One woman comments on Susan Stanton's hair. Another voter complains that Stanton should do more to keep his wife in line. None seems at all interested in much other than the tabloid line of the day.

The irony is that what got Clinton elected in 1992--indeed, what continues to save him today in the Age of Monica--is precisely that voters do not think that way.

What made the 1992 campaign stand out distinctly from the pathetic races that flanked it in 1988 and 1996 was not sex (remember Gary Hart) or scandal (Asian money). It was, instead, that in the throes of a sharp economic recession, voters insisted upon a discussion of substance. Clinton caught onto that, convinced voters that he had a plan for making the economy work better, and forged a bond with the electorate that has persisted ever since.

A feel for that peeks through only once in the movie--in a scene in which Stanton talks to a crowd of mostly unemployed shipyard workers in Portsmouth, N.H.

Neither he nor any other politician can bring their jobs back, Stanton tells the workers. In a changing economy, they will have to work smarter to find new ways to compete. But, he adds, they will need the active help of their government. If they stick with him when he is down, he vows, he will give them that help and never forget them.

That speech was a powerful moment in Clinton's campaign, and remains powerful in the movie. But here, it appears as an aberration, for nothing else we learn of Stanton or the voters connects with it.

In one sense, none of this matters. After all, while the film's publicists hope to thrive off the conceit that they are offering a keyhole view of "what went down on the way to the top," the test of a fictional character cannot be how well it resembles its real-life model.

The problem is that this film purports to explain something about American politics. And there, it falls short.

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