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Review: Primary colors

March 26, 1998|By Jason Myers

Jason Myers

Recently I noticed a bumper sticker that read "Part of the vast right-wing conspiracy." I smiled, amazed at how quickly after Hillary Clinton's remark that glib merchandising had begun.

Then I thought little of it, until I went to see "Primary Colors," the new Mike Nichols film based on the novel by Anonymous, based on the Bill Clinton campaign. Now the sticker strikes me as symptomatic of sociopolitical climate in which we now live. A smarmy indifference toward policy and rhetoric is tempered by an obsession with image and sensation, the titillating thrill of discovering an otherwise formidable character with his pants down, to use an obvious euphemism.

This is the environment President Clinton has to endure, and subsequently the scrutiny applied to his sexual history extends to his fictional counterpart, Democratic Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta).

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It seems that every 15 minutes there is a subplot emerging involving another extramarital dalliance - both in real life and the film. Yet what is so shrewd and striking about "Primary Colors" is that it does not excise every last lascivious detail from every alleged affair, as we're getting in the media, but rather examines how such affairs relate to the formation of a politician and a political campaign.

"Primary Colors" is uncommonly intelligent in its regard of American politicking and pollstering, in its droll, deliberate immersion in a presidential campaign, from inception to completion.

The film begins as Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) first sees Stanton in action, shaking hands and winning votes. Burton suffers from what Stanton adviser Richard Jennings (Billy Bob Thorton) will later diagnose as TB (True Believer) syndrome. Within an instant, Henry has almost unknowingly become chief campaign organizer, such is the powerful charisma of Stanton (and Clinton). Both men are excellent in their ability to seduce: a crowd, a voter, a woman.

The knowing and exuberant script by Elaine May has captured Clinton's cadence - the mixture of elegant eloquence and colloquial camaraderie. Where the film diverts from reality is the access it gives us to the character. Stanton, encyclopedic in his employment of anecdotes, at one point tells an adult literacy class about his uncle, a decorated war hero who never had "the courage to read." We later learn this story is a complete fabrication, but you still cannot help but be endeared.

Another engaging facade involves the marriage of Jack and Susan (Emma Thompson). One moment Susan slaps Jack for his indiscretion and infidelity; the next scene her hand is enfolded in his - the cameras are, of course, rolling. "Primary Colors" probes the duplicities of politics: the tawdriness and the triumph, the blatant lie and the practiced story. The film seems to suppose that such ambivalence is an essential component not only of a political campaign, but of life itself.

There is a vivid and wonderful scene halfway through the film. Nichols, his camera swivelling and dolleying to capture the opinions of the various political masterminds, while one brain remains conspicuously absent. Nichols moves the camera out of the din, eyeing up a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop. This image, brilliantly lighted by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, seems almost to recall a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post portrait. We move across the street and find Stanton charming another constituent.

Emotionally, narratively, the film gathers deeper hues. Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) is a longtime friend of the Stantons whom they call in to investigate any trespasses the media might find in Jack's past, but she soon becomes more than comic relief.

"Primary Colors" portrays two Americas. In the graphic exposition of the political process, there is the America we hate, we distrust, we fear. Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), a former governor who joins the race when Stanton's Democratic opposition has a heart attack, represents the other America: the one that makes us sentimental, makes us cry, makes us willing to die.

Few films provide the pleasures of "Primary Colors," fewer still the moral intonations. In the relationship of the Stantons, in the dynamics of playing the press and playing the public, in the interior and exterior lives of politicians and their friends and advisers, lies human comedy, a film about folly and a film of focus.

Nichols has not shown so much insight since "The Graduate" - in "Primary Colors," the Oedipal relationship is between Henry and Libby, and their offspring is the victory of the Stantons - both moral and electoral. It is difficult to imagine a more real and winning win.

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