By David Owen
APRIL 27, 1998: I recently saw two movies loosely inspired by the life and times of William Jefferson Clinton III: Primary Colors, based on the '92 Clinton campaign, in which art imitates life; and Wag the Dog, where the pros come in to create a media distraction when the president is caught in a dalliance with a young girl, in which life imitates art.
Of the two, I liked Wag the Dog far more. First, there is the deliciously fortuitous timing the film makers enjoyed in releasing the picture at the very moment the whole "BimboGate" thing blew, turning what might have been a stand-up double of a film into an inside-the-park home run.
Then there is the wonderfully cynical acknowledgment of the fact that television, especially television well-done, is not just a major factor in shaping the national electorate in these politically dismal timesit is the only factor.
I saw Wag the Dog with a buddy with whom I worked producing commercials in a couple of major campaigns. We have learned well the role of what is called "Movie Magic." Forget about politics. Use show biz to telland sella story. Bring in the people in black clothes. They bring the wardrobe, makeup, lighting and a smoke machine, and make the candidate look like a star.
Primary Colors is interesting despite the distraction of a disappointing John Travolta playing a cartoon character who ends up as a composite of Barbarino and ClintonBubbarino.
Of interest is that despite its depiction of Jack Stantona flawed and philandering faux-Clintonthe movie has been good for the real president's approval rating.
A useful device in films is that of a sympathetic character who in some way represents the audience within the story. In this case, it is the campaign operative Henry Burton. Henry represents us because, from the first, he is skeptical about candidate Stanton and wants desperately to be convinced of the man's goodness.
Throughout the movie, Burton is torn by the inconsistencies of the man he is working to electat once sensitive and caring, strong and able; yet clearly not all he appears to the public. Stanton is dogged by accusations of adultery that the real Clinton campaign dubbed "Bimbo eruptions."
But the film is great for Clinton because, despite witnessing the dirty laundry and all the obvious contradictions in the man, Henry decides reluctantly that the good he believes Stanton can do as president outweighs the negative he sees in his character. Henry makes his own deal with the devil and stays on board. Sound familiar?
Both films do a fairly good job of validating our national cynicism of politics. Ironically, given its lampooning theme, Wag the Dog dispenses with all pretenseit starts out cynical and goes downhill from there. I think they call that cinema vérité.
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