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Tucson Weekly No Whitewash

"Primary Colors" captures the sleaze and shades of gray in American politics.

By Stacey Richter

MARCH 30, 1998:  PRIMARY COLORS WOULD have made a great television series. Based on the novel by Joe Klein (published under the crafty pseudonym Anonymous), Primary Colors is a fictionalized account of Bill Clinton's 1992 primary campaign. The story has so many characters, incidents, and points-of-view that it can't possibly remain consistent, given its short duration. Like Jack Stanton (John Travolta), the candidate it portrays, Primary Colors has trouble staying true to itself. And like Jack Stanton, it's fascinating nonetheless.

An issue or two ago, Time magazine included a handy guide for matching up actors/characters in Primary Colors with their historical counterparts, in case you're interested, or prone to missing the obvious. It's pretty clear that Travolta is doing an imitation of President Clinton, from his bleached eyebrows to his gravely voice. Emma Thompson has a striking Hillary-ness about her--etc.

We should have known this was coming when Reagan was elected. Once there was an actor in the White House, it was only a matter of time before the moguls in Hollywood, flattered that one of their boys had crossed over, would begin to fantasize about what they would do in his place. And how they'd be stronger and better-looking. Thus, a new genre was born: The President Movie.

I find this trend disturbing but increasingly apt. Since the President's private life is an object of intense speculation anyway, why not just keep pushing the speculation further and make a movie out of it? At least most people can tell the difference between fact and fiction, no matter how hard the movies try to blur the lines. Primary Colors tries harder than most, but ultimately it doesn't matter how close the parallels between the Stantons and the Clintons are. Primary Colors succeeds as a film because it fails as a work of propaganda. There is so much moral ambiguity, so many shifting allegiances and regretfully made compromises in the story, that Jack Stanton doesn't come off as a simple hero or a pure villain. He's got a little of both in him.

The story follows the career of Stanton's smart but starry-eyed campaign manager, Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the grandson of a famous civil rights leader. He's disillusioned with the powerlessness he's encountered in politics, and believes he has found, in the charismatic, love-starved Stanton, a politician who really cares about the people. He fervently believes Stanton cares, even though he has a habit of bedding his constituents, and then of lying to cover up his infidelities.

As Henry looks on, a bunch of supporters dance around Stanton--all people who love their candidate and are willing to work for him, and to change for him, and make all sorts of hard choices on his behalf. Stanton, in the midst of this swirl, remains a constant presence. Travolta, with his natural, affable charm, is the perfect guy to portray this president. Once you get used to his annoying Clinton imitation, Travolta plays Stanton as a man who is perfectly in love with himself and expects unconditional love in return. He's like a big, articulate golden retriever.

For Stanton, morality is perfectly clear: Whatever helps him win is good. But the other characters find themselves mired in shades of gray: Should they help expose the sad past of his political opponent? Scare a young girl out of a paternity suit? As their reactions to Stanton vacillate, Primary Colors shuffles through the stark points-of-view that other movies about fame and power have evoked: First there's a little of the optimism of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, then there's a little of the corruption of A Face in the Crowd. Primary Colors, though, refuses to take a firm stand, unless it is to point out that politicians will be politicians.

It's too bad that Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage) has succumbed to the prevailing sentimental style of film directing in this movie, where it's particularly uncalled for. The swelling music, the tight close-ups, the continual use of red, white, and blue--it all adds up to an overly-emotional, manipulative set of images that parallel Stanton's own crass use of sentiment. Perhaps this is part of what drew Nichols to the subject: Movie directors, like politicians, feel compelled these days to make catchy pictures that can be easily understood. This aspect of Primary Colors so detracts from its power that it will probably keep it safely out of movie history, despite its willingness to tackle genuine moral dilemmas, and despite its extraordinary timeliness.


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