In 1994, an insider’s look at a scandal-ridden run for the Democratic presidential nomination (closely based on Clinton’s 1992 campaign) was written anonymously (former Newsweek writer Joe Klein later claimed true authorship). Now, the book, Primary Colors, has been made into a movie, directed by Mike Nichols, and, in light of recent presidential scandals, seems to be more relevant than ever. But the film is more than a diatribe against, or a paean in praise of, the president. It is a fascinating look at the political machinery, and the ethical quagmire, that surround modern politics.
Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the governor of a small southern state running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He is charismatic, but has several flaws which threaten to doom his campaign, and strains his relationship with his wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).
The film is told from the point of view of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), grandson of a civil rights leader, who is swept away by Stanton’s ideals and helps to organize the campaign. He joins political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton, looking an awful lot like James Carville), and campaign advisor Daisy Green (Maura Tierney).
Governor Stanton’s past repeatedly pops up to haunt him, a fact that his chief rival, Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney), consistently uses to his advantage. To help clean up the Stanton campaign, Jack and Susan bring in an old friend, Libby “The Dustbuster” Holden (Kathy Bates).
The acting throughout Primary Colors is superb. It would be worth seeing the movie for Bates’ wild performance alone. She enlivens the atmosphere with energy in a truly boisterous performance. Travolta does a fair Clinton impersonation as Governor Stanton, although his accent does stray a little. Emma Thompson delivers a strong performance as his suffering wife who can’t let anything show that might hurt the presidential run.
The problem with political movies is that they tend to alienate over half of their audience by promoting one side or the other, or else the movie is vague to the point of boredom. Primary Colors treads lightly on this issue. Though Stanton is clearly portrayed as a Democrat, and there are a few minor barbs thrown in the way of Republicans, the movie touches on few actual political issues. In fact, most of the “bad guys” are fellow Democrats on the same road to the White House.
Rather than issues, the film is primarily concerned about scandals and spin control. Although the film strays into some obviously non-Clinton territory, it is difficult to completely separate it from reality (particularly when certain scenes seem to highlight the President’s current troubles).
Primary Colors’ chief problem is its length. It runs about 15 minutes too long. There are some scenes which could have easily been cut. For example, midway through the film, the candidate gives a speech to an assembly of laid off machinists. The scene’s only apparent purpose is to establish Stanton’s character, which has already been done in similar scenes earlier in the film. The extra length isn’t long enough nor tiring enough to be annoying, but it mars an otherwise excellent film.
Republicans, Democrats, and political agnostics should all be able to find something to like in Primary Colors. It’s a funny, and at some times shocking, look at the modern political process.