March 21, 1998 -- "Primary Colors" is one of the best film about politics I have ever seen and is director Mike Nichols best film since "The Graduate," 31 years ago.
To put this film in context, you should know I don't have the particular genetic defect that makes most reporters interested in politics. I found the Monica Lewinsky case boring after the first two days of media coverage, because it has all the legal significance of a speeding ticket. This film, however, makes politics very interesting.
The film, of course, is based on Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign as thinly disguised in the book of the same name, but it purports to be about a fictional character called "Jack Stanton" played by John Travolta, who does a very good job playing Bill Clinton. The wonderful British actress Emma Thompson plays Stanton's wife, Susan, who happens to be a dead ringer for Hillary Clinton.
Stanton is a guy who has a big appetite for life. He's constantly eating and has frequent extra-marital sexual affairs. Susan is in a state of denial about the affairs, but even when confronted with the truth, she is willing to put up with it in order to get a shot at the big prize, the presidency of the United States.
Hillary, I mean Susan, is one of the best characters in the film. She is a tough, brilliant politician, every bit as shrewd and charming as her husband, and just as ambitious. Even better is Kathy Bates, who plays Libby Holden, a damage control specialist with a history of mental illness.
Bates' performance is already being discussed by Roger Ebert and others as worth of an Academy Award for next year (the film opened too late to be considered for next week's awards). Bates gives an outstanding performance as a ruthless, dedicated political activist with a heart of gold. She is heartbreakingly passionate, and, in the end, has the highest moral character of any politician in the film. Her performance, like the film is outrageous, funny and tragic.
A real surprise is the performance of Larry Hagman as Clinton's (I mean Stanton's) toughest opponent. Hagman plays a politician who comes out of retirement, hoping to leave his past behind him. In a terrific scene he breaks down when confronted with the dirt by Stanton. Billy Bob Thornton gives his best performance since "Sling Blade" as campaign strategist Richard Jemmons, who is a dead ringer for Jim Carville, the "Ragin' Cajun." Thornton goes over the top for a very effective performance of a man who seems larger than life.
The central character of the film is Henry Burton, who is the narrator. All of the action revolves around him. Played perfectly by stage actor Adrian Lester, Burton is smart, experienced, savvy, by still idealistic. He is caught up by Stanton's charisma, and he thinks that Stanton might actually care about the issues and he might really do something if elected.
Burton very quickly finds out that Stanton is a liar, he cheats on his wife and that both the Stantons will seemingly do anything to get elected. The candidates and everyone else in this film also use very foul language. Still, Burton is trapped by Stanton's charm and charisma, and by the promise of power.
When Stanton is elected, many questions hang in the air at the end of the movie. Have all these people sold their souls to get elected? Can they redeem themselves once elected? I would say the answers are yes and no. Once elected, of course, you have to start worrying about getting elected again, so you are going to be playing the same political games in office as you played as a candidate.
More importantly, the movie takes a hard look at the way primary election campaigns are run. There was little discussion of money, but the movie takes a close look at the "dirty" side of politics. It seems to make the argument that the so-called "character" issues should not matter. Another argument it makes is that in politics, a smear based on a lie is just as harmful as one based on the truth.
If you see this film it will certainly make you think about how we elect presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, who, despite personal and political failures, remain immensely popular. This film is certainly about the loss of innocence.
It should be pointed out that Bill Clinton didn't strip the electorate of its innocence. The "character" issues were there all along. The voters basically said they didn't care about those issues. Clinton, like Reagan before him, is a scoundrel, but a likable one and the voters were willing to put up with them. Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Bob Dole are more honorable men, but not as likable. Look what happened to them.
Perhaps voters have decided that an honest man, like Carter, cannot operate effectively in the world political arena in this day and age, maybe such men never could. Look what happened to Woodrow Wilson in his European negotiations. He was eaten up by the political sharks. When it comes to global geopolitical machinations, maybe what you want is your own shark. This is a very entertaining and thought provoking film, as you can probably tell by the length of this review. It rates an A.
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