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"Primary Colors" touches you there.

By Ray Pride

MARCH 23, 1998:  "Any publicity is good publicity," the old joke goes, "just spell my name right." Will that apply to "Primary Colors," Mike Nichols' superb film of Joe Klein's roman-à-clef of the 1992 presidential campaign? While the candidate's name in the story is "Jack Stanton," the firestorm of publicity swirling around the President's alleged proclivities, particularly since this past weekend, guarantees that everyone will get the name wrong, spelling it "Bill Clinton."

Topicality is almost impossible in the movie business. Even in the best of situations, it takes a couple of years to get a script to screen, and many good films take five or ten years of development hell or dogged determination by a relentless producer. When serendipity wags a wicked finger, it's usually a doozy, such as the release of "The China Syndrome" a few days after the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor had its little leaks. But the media meltdown over President Clinton's private life may very well hurt "Primary Colors" in a way its makers never intended. Will audiences be reluctant to see a movie that might seem like a piffly distillation of the profusion of trash they can get from newspapers and television? (While superficially a satire, "Primary Colors" at no moment attains the pointless lunacy of Ed Bradley on "60 Minutes," eyes and earring agleam, asking Kathleen Willey to be more specific when she says "he put my hand on him.")

The 66-year-old Nichols, whose films run from "The Graduate" to "The Birdcage," is also an accomplished theater director. But his career began in the late 1950s in Chicago, when, working with Elaine May, their routines captured the banter of the neurotic intellectual of that era. Years have passed, but Nichols and May's collaboration on "Primary Colors" may have so perfectly captured a slice of today's political life that it will work against them in the worst possible way. It would be tragic: "Primary Colors" is mature filmmaking of subtlety, vigor and moral weight.

May has an ear for the perfect, twisted line of dialogue, while Nichols (working with gifted collaborators like cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production designer Bo Welch) is a wizard in subtly controlling each visual element, from each artifact on every set to each element of body language. Then the little fripperies of behavior in the widescreen frame ping with flavor like extra notes in a sip of wine. Theater and cinema converge with amusing, amazing results.

John Travolta's southern governor is a lovable, petulant boor, a pampered child gone to gray, going to lard. Emma Thompson's durable political wife, Susan Stanton, gives a hint of what the world wonders about Hillary Clinton: how would she and her husband talk about the world outside, about their world inside? How would she react to a history of hurt? Watch the intricate, subtle take where Stanton stride-waddles down the tarmac to meet her, where she dresses him down, he flirts, coos, sings, fondles and she finally melts in his embrace. (It takes two to tingle.) There is another rapid-fire series of scenes that demonstrate that farce is all-American, where the film's presumable hero, Stanton's fresh-faced campaign advisor Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), wakes in bed with a co-worker, and quickly discovers that everyone is literally in bed with someone, all the way up to Jack and Susan.

The satirical gloss in "Primary Colors" masks great heart, as it moves beyond sexual behavior to ideas about political honor. There are many resonant little speeches, particularly from next year's Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, as fixer Libby Holden (live beholden?), the proudly insane moral voice of the movie, and the brilliant Elaine May one-liners are spread all around. (How does an intern react to a political advisor urging his member onto her? "You're crushing my originals.")

The greatest stroke may be a scene played out in a lysergic Edward Hopper apparition, like a stage-set of "Nighthawks," in a New Hampshire parking lot, where Henry finds Stanton, alone in a surreally pristine, green neon Krispy Kreme donut stand, making contact with the counter man over coffee and crullers, one new set of hopes. The need of a great politician to empathize, or to believe that he empathizes, has seldom been played out with such quiet strength. But there are other questions considered in "Primary Colors," such as when does an outsider, "aching to do good," become a player, and how much does compromise with others compromise your own principles? Those questions of the soul are at the core of "Primary Colors," yet its chances of being taken as more than a slick burlesque may be limited by its inadvertent moments of pitch-perfect prediction, such as when Henry confronts Jack in an airport men's room over the import of his latest sexual indiscretion, and Travolta's Stanton spits out a categorical denial that rings of Bill Clinton's "There is no sexual relationship with that woman." "I am not the father of that child," Stanton says, with Nichols trapping him in a series of mirrors.

"None of it is clear-cut venality," Bates' Libby says when she regrets having gotten the goods on an opponent, "It's human and awful and sad." "Primary Colors" is sturdy, funny and smart, and it deserves a better fate than getting trapped in a hall of the media's mirrors. As Billy Bob's politico memorably spits out, "The media giveth and go fuck yourself."

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