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Once past the obvious Clinton gags, is "Primary Colors" really about anything?

By Zak Weisfeld

MARCH 30, 1998:  Someone (probably a cynic posing as a patronizing realist) once said that beneath the surface of every cynic is an idealist who has seen reality. But there is another kind of cynic—the kind who thinks Mark Twain is a light-hearted sentimentalist, the kind who follows the adage of the ancient order of the Assassins: that nothing is true, and everything is permissible. And these are the dangerous cynics because they're almost impossible to distinguish from optimists.

This is a cynic who looks into the terrible, dark heart of the world, filled as it is with lies, corruption, and betrayal, and says, "This isn't so bad, really. In fact, if you think about it, this is pretty damn good. The truth is, you should be honored to be a part of it." When this person directs witty, urbane Hollywood movies, we call him Mike Nichols. When this person spreads huge leathery wings across a blood red sky, we call him the Devil.

Either one of them could have been responsible for the latest in a series of eerily familiar Hollywood political movies, Primary Colors.

Primary Colors was originally a novel by the courageously named author Anonymous and purported to tell the story behind the story of Clinton's campaign to be President of the United States. Now it's a movie scripted by the deft and funny Elaine May and I'm not sure what it purports to tell.

Primary Colors, the film, follows a very Clintonesque Southern governor, Jack Stanton, and his close-knit group of friends and family through the trials and tribulations of the Democratic primary campaign. It's a campaign made all the more difficult due to the candidate's inability to keep his penis in his pants. But Primary Colors also centers around an idealistic young campaign manager named Henry Burton who wants to be a part of history. And this is where the problems begin—the technical, rather than the ethical, problems, that is.

After an entertaining first half, it quickly becomes apparent that neither Nichols nor May—nor anyone else, for that matter—has any real idea what the movie is about. Because the main character isn't Governor Stanton, it's actually Burton. And Burton doesn't do anything. Ever.

Burton is billed as the hotshot campaign manager but is played by Adrian Lester as though he were a kid in the school band who can't quite keep up with the music. When not gawking, stammering, or looking flabbergasted, Burton is moping. Or, strangely enough, having an affair with another profoundly uninteresting character, the campaign aide, Daisy. The one thing Burton never does is make a decision or take an action that would make anyone give a damn about him or the movie.

Despite Lester's wet-towel act, the rest of the cast plays Nichols' fiendish film with a lot of humor and energy. John Travolta bulked-up well for his portrayal of Clinton, er...um...Stanton and plays him with all the goofy charm and manic sex drive of a redneck sweat hog.

Emma Thompson (and why do the British seem to be able to do American accents so much better than Americans can do British accents?) is all edges, thwarted hopes, and clamped-down ambition in her roll as the much-put-upon wife, Susan Stanton. Kathy Bates nearly steals the show as Libby Bates (and really, what Presidential campaign would be complete without the psycho-idealist lesbian fixer?).

But despite the excellent cast, Primary Colors fails to give any real sense of what it's like to run a presidential campaign or of the moral dilemma of modern politics (see The War Room for great Clinton campaign documentary and Wag the Dog for this year's great anti-morality play). And even when it veers from reality for dramatic effect, Primary Colors can't seem to make even its fictional moral crises coherent or meaningful.

What are we to make of a candidate whose big ethical challenge isn't whether or not to lie to his friends, employees, and wife, which he does constantly, but whether or not he should use his rival's similar lies against him to beat him in the primary? Primary Colors begs some very real questions about limits, honesty, and ethics—and then washes them away in a baptism of red, white, and blue victory balloons as if the moral is just to win.

But the problem is that we're never given a clear picture of just what Stanton stands for. Other than some vague talk about helping the people and wanting to be a part of history, Stanton seems to have no real agenda, no ideal for which he's fighting. Without some powerful guiding vision, it's difficult to excuse his errors in the context of championing the greater good. Instead, Primary Colors begs the question of what kind of depravity we're willing to tolerate in a candidate. And while this is a real and important question we're all forced to answer in our lives, it's hardly something to gloat about.

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