If, as it’s been said, the mark of a music lover is the ability to hear Rossini’s William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger, so the mark of a cineaste is being able to watch John Travolta and Emma Thompson in “Primary Colors” unimpeded by thoughts of Bill and Hillary Clinton. It’s a test most Americans would fail without thinking twice.
Despite the expected author’s note disclaimer about its characters and situations not being real, “Primary Colors” the novel is the most celebrated of modern romans a clef, a piece of informed but controversial speculation by political writer Joe Klein working under the pen name Anonymous. Not only Jack Stanton and his wife but almost all its characters are based on well-known operatives, from big state governor Orlando Ozio (read Mario Cuomo) to down-home consultant Richard Jemmons (a.k.a. James Carville).
Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May have had the skill and the good sense to take the frisson this closeness to reality provides and run with it. Despite all the cautions and disclaimers from a legion of pundits, despite our knowledge that this is not the real thing, only a riff on the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign, “Primary Colors” is for the most part such a smart and savvy piece of work it encourages us to feel we’re eavesdropping on history. It’s a sensation that can be delicious.
In the decades since he and May were the sharpest of stand-up comedy teams, Nichols has become a director known for putting a high commercial sheen on material, some of which (“Biloxi Blues,” “Regarding Henry,” “Wolf”) has stopped rewarding the effort. Here, that craft (including the top-drawer help of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Bo Welch, editor Arthur Schmidt, composer Ry Cooder and costumer Ann Roth) is joined to the slightly subversive pungency of May’s sharp and sarcastic script, which includes many of the book’s better speeches and knows how to improve on them. If the film overreaches a bit in its attempt to be meaningful (and it does), it still offers more than enough pleasing wit and pizazz to win us over.
The “Primary Colors” story is told through the eyes of Henry Burton (British actor Adrian Lester), a young African American political operative, the grandson of a legend of the civil rights movement, who joins the presidential campaign of an obscure Southern governor named Jack Stanton (Travolta).
Burton was not eager to get on the team of a man he’s heard described as “some cracker who hasn’t done much in his own state.” But as a would-be idealist who strategist Jemmons (a low-key and effective Billy Bob Thornton) accurately diagnoses as having a case of “galloping true believerism,” Burton cannot resist Stanton’s color-blindness, what appears to be his genuine feeling for America’s have-nots, plus the intellectual moxie of his wife, Susan (Thompson).
If “The War Room,” the D.A. Pennebaker-Chris Hegedus documentary on the same topic is any measure, “Primary Colors” is excellent at depicting the barely organized chaos of campaigning, following the candidate and his team from their underdog status in New Hampshire through the trials of campaigns in Florida and New York.
These peregrinations are more twisty than usual because of what a profane, take-no-prisoners Stanton loyalist named Libby Holden calls with typical brio the governor’s propensity for having “poked his pecker in some sorry trash bins.” After a hairdresser named Cashmere McLeod (read Gennifer Flowers) sells her tell-all story to a national tabloid, Holden is hired by the campaign to be a “dustbuster” and discredit tales of womanizing before they can harm the candidate. For Tennessee-born Kathy Bates, this gleeful, high-energy part is a lifesaver, her best performance since winning an Oscar in “Misery” and good enough to practically steal the entire picture.
Though “Primary Colors” the movie plays a bit softer than the book, partially because it eliminates a brief sexual encounter between the president’s wife and the narrator, it does not avoid the questions the original raised about means and ends. How far can you allow yourself to go in cutthroat slander, deception and manipulation in order to keep a good-guys campaign alive? Is venality the price you pay to lead? Is there truth in Stanton’s question, “You don’t think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president?” And does Henry Burton really know what he’s getting into when he says early on, “I’ll take the liar over the man who doesn’t care”?
Making the conundrum of compromise more than a dry, academic query are the characters of Jack and Susan Stanton as revealed through the people who play them. Though it’s routinely said that adroit casting is the major part of the filmmaking battle, it’s unusual to have two actors whose different approaches to their craft are not only complementary but also help illuminate their characters’ relationship to each other.
Travolta, more the instinctive movie star than the highly trained technician, has chosen to closely model Gov. Stanton, down to his silvery hair and Southern accent, on President Clinton. It’s no more than a turn, an amusing and light-fingered impersonation, but like the politician he plays it’s an irresistible one. The movie’s Stanton is a flawed and contradictory man, baffling and hypnotic in his seamless combination of genuine caring with casual manipulation. This film’s accomplishment is illustrating that contradiction, showing how such a man could captivate an intelligent, caring staff--and the American public--despite his evident shortcomings.
Essential in defining Stanton’s character is his relationship with wife Susan. Thompson, the more classically trained performer, chose not to base her character on Hillary Rodham Clinton. That combination makes Susan seem twice removed from the governor, adds spice to the head and heart duality that characterizes their dynamic and makes them eerily seem like two halves of the same person.
“Primary Colors” also features strong performances in its minor characters. Especially worth singling out are Larry Hagman as one of the governor’s political opponents, Caroline Aaron as an obstreperous friend of Susan’s, and Rob Reiner as an irrepressible Miami talk-show host. Characters we see too little of, presumably because the film ran long, include Maura Tierney as Daisy, Burton’s campaign partner in crime (who simply disappears at a certain point), and Diane Ladd, whose Momma Stanton is reduced to the merest cameo.
Entertaining as it mostly is, “Primary Colors” parallels the book in being least successful near its close when it tries to force more serious moral lessons than its story line can comfortably hold. And as risque as its speculations seemed when Klein was still anonymous, the rush of history, epitomized by the tale of Monica Lewinsky, has overtaken and surpassed what’s been put on the screen.
But if parallels to reality is the hook that draws us into “Primary Colors,” it’s the nature of its characters that holds us there. Gov. Stanton commands our interest, in somewhat the same way the president does; he doesn’t seem to add up. If we could fully figure him out and pin down the nature of his appeal, we might be able to do the same for both our political process and ourselves. And that would be not a half-bad day’s work.
* MPAA rating: R for strong language and sexual references. Times guidelines: foul language.
John Travolta: Gov. Jack Stanton
Emma Thompson: Susan Stanton
Billy Bob Thornton: Richard Jemmons
Kathy Bates: Libby Holden
Adrien Lester: Henry Burton
Maura Tierney: Daisy
Larry Hagman: Gov. Fred Picker
A Mutual Film Co. production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Mike Nichols. Producer Mike Nichols. Executive producers Neil Machlis, Jonathan D. Krane. Screenplay Elaine May, based on the novel by Anonymous. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Arthur Schmidt. Costumes Ann Roth. Music Ry Cooder. Production design Bo Welch. Art director Tom Duffield. Set decorator Cheryl Carasik. Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.