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The Boston Phoenix Off Colors

"Primary"'s dominant hue is yellow.

By Peter Keough

MARCH 23, 1998:  How do you judge a film like Primary Colors -- as an adaptation of a novel, as a version of the historical events the novel is based on, as an uncanny reflection of current events, or on its own terms as a political satire? In the case of Mike Nichols's much-hyped, eagerly awaited take on the Joe Klein (a/k/a "Anonymous") roman à clef of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential-primary campaign, the question proves moot: the film is a failure as each. Not that it's awful, it's just like almost everything else that prevails these days in politics and movies -- pallidly mediocre.

The beginning at least promises what you'd expect from such a fecund subject, such bright and barbed filmmakers as Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May, and such vivid actors as John Travolta and Emma Thompson. Primary Colors opens with a slow-motion close-up of Jack Stanton (Travolta, porked up to look more like Ted Kennedy than the president), governor of an obscure, unnamed Southern state and a candidate for the Democratic nomination, pressing the flesh. Not that kind of flesh pressing just yet -- he's only shaking hands. But as described by the voiceover of political strategist Henry Burton (British actor Adrian Lester doing a good imitation of George Stephanopoulos's cerebral nerdiness), it's a funny premonition of the carnal shenanigans that have dogged the chief executive to this day. "The left hand is genius," Henry comments with awe. "If he takes your elbow or bicep, it means he's interested in you. If he gets any higher up, it's somehow less intimate."

And if lower down? That possibility is alluded to a few scenes later. Courted by the Stanton camp to be Jack's campaign manager, Burton is swept off to the candidate's visit with an inner-city literacy program. Moved by one participant's story, Stanton weepily embraces him. Back at hotel campaign headquarters, Burton, still wavering, meets Stanton as the candidate piles out of his bedroom casually fixing his tie, with the flustered literacy-program director, her clothing similarly disarrayed, slinking out behind him. Ignoring Burton's objections, Stanton genially packs him onto a plane for the New Hampshire primary.

This and a dwindling number of other scenes capture the charisma, confusion, vulgarity, and idealism that has surrounded the remarkable success and travails of the current president. Travolta's performance -- a beguiling mix of charm, will, appetite, sleaze, and vision until it breaks down into doughnut-stuffing caricature -- for a while ennobles and deflates his model. Even more effective is Emma Thompson as wife Susan, nailing down the diamond-hard but still elusive Hillary as a passionate, keenly controlled, lucidly logical and ruthless campaigner equally convincing whether coldly orchestrating damage control, slapping Jack in the face, or breaking down in tears after one too many sordid revelations.

The candidate and his wife are not so much at fault in Primary Colors as are their handlers. After a strong start as the film's moral center (Klein stacks the deck by making him the grandson of a Martin Luther King-like civil-rights leader), Burton retreats to a wry grimace on the periphery. Billy Bob Thornton's James Carville manqué, Richard Jemmons, transforms the original's Ragin' Cajun into callow cornpone. The rest, such as campaign media adviser Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), who ends up without comment or enthusiasm in Henry's bed, don't muster enough interest to warrant real-life parallels. (Hadn't Nichols seen D.A. Pennebaker's brilliant documentary of the '92 campaign, The War Room? Those unfulfilled by this picture should.)

Of course, the send-ups of actual people and events do arouse morbid curiosity and an occasional laugh. There's the fascinating squalor of the Gennifer Flowers affair, here represented by Susan's hairdresser, Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides). There's the stiff purity of the Paul Tsongas challenge, here briefly portrayed by Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney), who falls victim to a heart attack during a radio-show telephone debate with Stanton -- one of the film's more disturbing and hilarious moments. And then there's the booby factor of Ross Perot/Jerry Brown, rendered with bewildered dignity by Larry Hagman as former Florida governor Fred Picker.

As long as it sticks to the facts, Colors lives up to its name. When it goes off on its own in its latter half, it becomes a washed-out rehash of Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men. As Stanton spin-controller Libby Holden (allegedly Clinton aide Betsey Wright), Kathy Bates overdoes the ballbusting (almost literally -- the film has a sour tinge of castration anxiety and misogyny) bull-dyke fanatic as only she can, hijacking the film toward a bland resolution of speechified platitudes, cheap sentiment, and parody. The concern that Primary would go easy on Clinton proves not so much unfounded as irrelevant. It goes easy on the audience. Unlike the greatest satirists, and he is sometimes one himself, Nichols overlooks the power of one key color -- black.


Primary suspects

Character

Played By

In Real Life

Jack Stanton John Travolta Bill Clinton
Susan Stanton Emma Thompson Hillary Clinton
Henry Burton Adrian Lester George Stephanopoulos
Richard Jemmons Billy Bob Thornton James Carville
Cashmere McLeod Gia Carides Gennifer Flowers
Lawrence Harris Kevin Cooney Paul Tsongas
Fred Picker Larry Hagman Ross Perot/Jerry Brown
Libby Holden Kathy Bates Betsey Wright
Daisy Green Maura Tierney Mandy Grunwald


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