Primary Colors (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It would be possible to write pages and pages comparing and contrasting the reality of Bill Clinton's 1992 Presidential campaign with the fictional one of Jack Stanton, the candidate in Primary Colors. Likewise, it would be equally possible to develop a lengthy piece about the similarities and differences between the movie and the best-selling novel upon which it is based. Since more qualified individuals than I will be penning articles of this sort over the next few days and weeks, I feel confident that I can narrow the scope of this review (mostly) to the movie itself, and let others worry about the divisions between fact and fiction.

Of course, it's impossible not to note that many of the characters in the film bear a striking resemblance to certain counterparts in the Clinton camp. Equally noteworthy is the fact that the movie dopplegangers are portrayed more kindly than their respective book incarnations. This is partially the result of the direction in which director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage) has chosen to take the film. Joe Klein's novel (which he published under the "Anonymous" pseudonym) is a cynical satire of life on the campaign trail. It's harsh, blistering, and possesses an edge that the film, a warmhearted comedy/drama, lacks. And, while the motion picture still makes some rather uncomfortable points about the sacrifices of virtue necessary to win an election, its approach is much gentler than that of the book, or, for that matter, another recent movie, Wag the Dog, or the documentary, The War Room.

There's merit in briefly running through the film's major characters and identifying their real-life counterparts, if only to satisfy the curiosity of those who have seen the picture and aren't sure. Jack and Susan Stanton (John Travolta and Emma Thompson) are, of course, Bill and Hillary Clinton. The movie's central figure, whose soul becomes a battleground between politics and idealism, is Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a black version of George Stephanopoulos. Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), a plain-speaking spin doctor, is obviously James Carville. Campaign adviser Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) represents Mandy Grunwald, and dirt-digger Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) exhibits similarities to Betsey Wright. There's also a Gennifer Flowers-type named Cashmire McLeod (Gia Carides) and a Paul Tsongas stand-in, Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney).

In a nutshell, the film follows a Democratic presidential candidate from the early days of his campaign, when he's preparing for the New Hampshire primary, to the vanquishing of his final opponent. Governor Jack Stanton, who is charisma personified, wins over voters as a result of his relaxed manner, apparent empathy with his audience, and refreshingly open approach. ("I'm gonna do something really outrageous -- tell the truth," he declares at one point. The irony of that statement, I'm sure, is not lost on anyone.) But Jack has a number of skeletons in his closet, many of which are associated with sexual indiscretions, and his advisors work overtime to keep them concealed.

Not everything in Primary Colors is stripped from the historical account of Clinton '92. One of the key players in the film, Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), the "miracle candidate," has no real-life counterpart. In addition, much of what transpires during the closing half-hour has little or no basis in fact. It's purely Klein's invention, as filtered through Elaine May's script. Likewise, the resolution of the Cashmire McLeod situation is radically different from how things turned out with Gennifer Flowers.

However, while the film is smart and perceptive in its take on American politics, it's dramatically weak. Nichols frequently seems caught in a palpable quandary: is this a satire, a drama, or a cautionary tale? Because Primary Colors vacillates uncertainly between the three, it's not strong as any of them. There's also a question of whether Nichols and May have softened the book to avoid appearing too critical of the President. Is Primary Colors an attack, a retreat, or an apology?

My biggest complaint about the film is the length. At 140 minutes, it's too long, with several sequences that border on becoming tedious. I also found Burton's constant moral struggles to be more irksome than believable. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but I have trouble accepting that someone that deep in the political process would be beset by so many doubts. (This, incidentally, was one of my complaints about The American President.) Humanizing a character is one thing, but making him too noble, especially in a movie that has a satirical basis, can be problematic. And, while the parallels between real individuals and fictional characters are interesting, they can't sustain a feature-length motion picture on their own.

Some of the problems inherent in adapting a book for the screen are evident as well. Many crucial relationships (such as the one between Burton and Green) are left half-developed (we see the two in bed, but never really understand how they got to that point, or where they go afterwards). Likewise, two-thirds of the way through, Green disappears with only a single-line write-out. It's difficult to say where these elements were molded into their current form (i.e., in the screenwriting process or in the editing room), but, considering some of what survived in the final print, it makes for an uneven viewing experience.

With one important exception, the performances are on-target. Travolta is wonderful as the Bill Clintonesque Stanton, with a Southern accent, white hair, a pot belly, and a boatload of charisma. Emma Thompson, effectively shedding her British accent, creates a wonderfully human Susan, who loves her husband but erects an emotional shield to ward off being torn apart by his indiscretions. Billy Bob Thornton, like James Carville, is a scene-stealer, as is Kathy Bates. Solid support is provided by Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, and Stacy Edwards (In the Company of Men) as Holden's "assistant." Unfortunately, I wasn't impressed by Adrian Lester's work, and, since the movie is presented from his perspective, this is a serious drawback. Lester frequently seems stiff, and his performance is occasionally forced. I was constantly aware that this is an actor playing a part, not a fully fleshed-out character.

It will be interesting to see whether the fortuitous timing of this release boosts the box office numbers. While there's nothing in the film that relates specifically to the recent allegations surrounding the President's sex life, there are at least as many parallels as in Wag the Dog. Jack Stanton is, after all, a noble, sincere man who genuinely wants to do good, but is impeded by an overactive libido. And, as Klein will acknowledge (but Nichols and May will not), any coincidences are purely intentional.

Primary Colors (United States, 1998)

Run Time: 2:20
U.S. Release Date: 1998-03-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1