Primary Colors
Director: Mike Nichols. Cast: Adrian Lester, John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney, Caroline Aaron, Larry Hagman, Paul Guilfoyle, Stacy Edwards. Screenplay: Elaine May (based on the novel by Anonymous).


In 1941, Citizen Kane played to most audiences as a barely-concealed riff on William Randolph Hearst, the tyrannical publishing magnate-cum-latter-day Kublai Khan. That the film is so widely and worshipfully watched today has almost nothing to do with the legacy of Hearst and everything to do with the artistry of Orson Welles.

For analogous reasons, I am not terribly interested in watching or thinking about Primary Colors as an exposé or even a loose dramatization of the Clinton administration/campaign. It goes without saying that one can hardly, in 1998, watch Mike Nichols' adaptation of Joe "Anonymous" Klein's novel and not associate Southern-fried governor Jack Stanton with Big Bill; not see the steely, quick-minded twinship between Susan Stanton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton; or make any of the other translucent connections of character and inspiration for which Klein's book was so widely read, celebrated, criticized, and sensationalized.

But how do you "sensationalize" something that is already so "sensational"? That question is not only the signal challenge posed to Nichols and his colleagues in making Primary Colors, it is the driving question of the story itself. The film is a relentless, shrewd, and (perhaps inevitably) frequently hilarious interrogation of the very nature of American democracy and its attendant elective processes. Clearly, the filmmakers—or, at least, most of them—are more interested in this essential exploration of American political structuring than they are in some back-hallway tongue-wagging about the Clintons. That is why the movie works so well—and why it deserves examination on its own dramatic terms, not as a big-budget Current Affair-style reenactment.

In electing a president, the American public invests itself in two contrary goals. On the one hand, we seem to want a candidate who is profoundly unlike us, because he or she is better educated, perhaps, or cooler under pressure, more effortlessly articulate or more morally, well, "unimpeachable." Our second goal, however, is a paradoxical yearning for someone who is exactly like us, one who "made it" through the hard work and commitment to excellence that we as a population believe we embody; who eats the same fast-food we do; who we feel "understands" the day-to-day issues which we confront from a populist point of view. He wants a good education for his child just as we do for ours. He can trade stories with us about old family war heroes. He'll stay up talking with us in late-night doughnut shops.

To what extent, though, are these driving expectations contradictory? Can we reasonably expect our political leaders to simultaneously embody lofty superiority and unqualified "normalness"? Whether or not we can, we do at the moment expect these dual, semi-opposed qualities, all of which gets realized in candidates like Jack Stanton (John Travolta).

Stanton knows, for example, that the folks at a New England adult-literacy class will respond best to a gent can cry with them and speechify at them, and he does both with remarkable finesse. Yes, to an extent this makes him a sham artist; the weepie yarn he spins of his heroic Uncle Charlie who never learned to read is quickly exposed in Elaine May's savvy script to be totally fictitious. It also, though, turns him into a thoroughly winning one-of-the-guys to the literacy club, and we see in a few minutes' time how a legion of voters can be won over, room by room, across the country.

Primary Colors then shoots another dart at the winning image of Jack Stanton: he beds the librarian who runs the group (she's played by Big Night's wallflower florist Alison Janney) and even indulges in self-congratulatory double entendres in reporting his "success with the teachers" on the phone to his wife. Soon enough we meet the spouse, Emma Thompson's Susan Stanton, and we marvel that this sagacious, shrewd, and sometimes shrewish woman either can't detect her husband's unfaithfulness or chooses not to.

As the campaign and the film continue, the tense relationship of admiration, competition, and (perhaps?) affection between Jack and Susan will become a consistent source of humor but also a thorny site of true interpersonal ugliness. The two seem to despair each other's company almost as often as they cherish each other's reciprocally-modeled integrity, intelligence, and promise. If anything, the Stantons' marriage is the microcosm of the entire American public's love-hate affair with Jack Stanton: sure, somewhere they seem to know he's got chinks in his honor, but ultimately, they all feel better about him (and about themselves/ourselves) if they look the other way.

I do Primary Colors a disservice, however, or at least misrepresent it, by suggesting that Jack and Susan occupy the center of its story; they don't. The real protagonist of the film is Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a young black idealist and descendant of a nationally-known and respected civil rights champion. Burton is obviously intended to be the viewer's primary identification site within Primary Colors, as alternately enchanted and enraged by the Stantons and their tactics as we are.

But again, we cheat what the filmmakers have accomplished if we see Henry only as a stand-in for ourselves. He is fraught with his own set of conflicts and internal divisions. Does he resent being known most widely as the descendant of someone else, or is he more than happy to have a family legacy that helps him get a foot in the door? Is he too enamoured of Jack Stanton to preserve his political idealism…or, perhaps more interestingly, is he too enamoured of his own political idealism (and the graduated state of ethics and intellect which he believes are its source) to accept what's good in Stanton?

As in All the King's Men half a century ago—nothing ever changes, does it?—Primary Colors presents us with a profoundly compelling political titan and then has the audacity to insist we reconcentrate our attention on a comparatively "minor" behind-the-scenes figure. To watch the film as Travolta's show is then, at essence, to dupe oneself as an audience member in precisely the way the film argues we cannot afford to dupe ourselves as voters: that is, to focus on the glamor and surface pleasures of what we already love (Travolta/Stanton) and improperly or lazily ignore substance, work, and the center of ideas (Lester/the campaign).

If the decision to focus on Lester is not so difficult to make, it's a tribute to the actor's tricky, nuanced, and quietly fascinating performance. Lester's expressive face gets him in trouble at the office—his eye-rolling and grimacing don't win him any quick friends among the more hardened politicos like Billy Bob Thornton's Richard Jemmons—but it is the single feature that most engages us in Henry's journey. Perhaps because of his stage-training, Lester also has a marvelously inflective voice, so almost every note of Henry's oscillating disappointments and exultations are easily broadcast to the viewer.

Thompson's work as Susan is as smart and as agilely comic/dramatic as we are accustomed to in her work, but she also invests Susan with a brittleness that we have never before seen her with onscreen. As she earlier proved in her unforgettable and Oscar-winning Howards End work, even Thompson's most emotional scenes are filtered through a commanding intelligence that makes her moments of weakness that much more heartbreaking: we feel what she feels because we know what (and how) she's thinking.

If Travolta's performance is neither as penetrating nor as fun, it is almost unquestionably because, of the entire cast, he alone relies heavily on the specific mannerisms, image, and behaviorisms of his real-life doppleganger. May writes Jack Stanton so cleverly that it's a shame to see him played with a nagging lack of imagination, although Travolta's magnetic likability certainly makes his casting a major asset to the film. And hey, the guy has his moments, particularly that conversation in the Krispy Kreme; if that scene doesn't go down as the archetypal moment of Primary Colors, I'll be shocked.

Among the supporting cast—and Nichols always fills his projects with deep, vital casts—Thornton scores a series of big laughs, though he like everyone else is not given as much to do as we might like. The exception is Kathy Bates as Libby Holden, the Stanton campaign's secret-weapon guerrilla tactician and a volatile mixture of a ruthless pragmatism and an unfaked belief that the ideals of democracy and morality should be maintained. I've never seen Bates doff the stage-bound largesse that keeps even her best performances somewhat artificial, and she doesn't do it here; still, she registers powerfully in several big speeches when Nichols and May basically cede to her the entire last act of the picture.

Primary Colors leaves several questions disappointingly underaddressed. Why does Susan stay with Jack? Is Henry's bloodline really enough to substantiate his immediate acceptance to the very nerve-center of the Stanton campaign? Can we assume that the qualities that make a popular or even a victorious contender would automatically make a successful or inspiring leader?

The burden of what Primary Colors leaves unsaid, though, is easily outweighed by the directness with which it probes its bravely stated subject and themes. Nichols and his colleagues have made a picture that is moving, funny, and frustrating because the democratic processes it describes are all of those things. The divided nature of Jack Stanton, mortal and divine, causes viewer and voter all sorts of consternation and bother. But would we want a candidate any other way? Sometimes the sign of a truly disciplined and intelligent movie is its dogged refusal to clean up its own mess. B+



July 2004: This was the first review I ever wrote for this website, and it's refreshing to discover—six years and a whole new world later—that I still stand by my reaction (and, for once, my prose). Even more delightful to discover is that I still stand by the movie: it is, if anything, better when viewed from beyond its own political moment. The improvisatory, reckless, hopeful, and hypocritical Stantons have become figures of nostalgia given the darker, more vicious hypocrisies of the current regime...and yet Elaine May, Mike Nichols, and the wondrous cast have made sure that the Stantons never look too good, even in retrospect. The one thing I might add to this review, in answer to one of its concluding rhetorical questions, is that it simply doesn't matter whether Stanton the Contender has anything to do with Stanton as Leader. Primary Colors, wisely, is about winning an election—wisely, because this form of politics has already become (if it wasn't already) totally separate from the idea of running a country. There is so much prescience in this film, combined with what was already spot-on in 1998, that if I had it to do over again—and hey, I do!—I would give the film an A–.


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Kathy Bates
Best Adapted Screenplay: Elaine May

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Musical/Comedy): John Travolta
Best Supporting Actress: Kathy Bates

Other Awards:
Screen Actors Guild Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Bates)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Adapted Screenplay

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