Primary Colors (1998)

Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) and Jack Stanton (John Travolta). The idealist and the pragmatist. "Primary Colors."

Directed and produced by Mike Nichols. Screenplay by Elaine May, based upon the novel by “Anonymous” [Joe Klein]. Music by Ry Cooder. Photographed by Michael Ballhaus. Edited by Arthur Schmidt. Production designed by Bo Welch. Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Adrian Lester, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, Diane Ladd, Paul Guilfoyle.

It is impossible to discuss Mike Nichols’ Primary Colors without saying first that John Travolta is, essentially, playing Bill Clinton. Even if you didn’t know that the screenplay was based on a roman à clef novel by journalist Joe Klein, you could easily deduce who Travolta used as the inspiration for his performance. The mannerisms, the vocal inflections, the hair, the complex relationship to a guarded woman, the unhealthy appetites (both culinary and otherwise)…all of these traits scream “Clintonian.” And while we’re at it, we may as well admit that Billy Bob Thornton, when he shows up, is essentially playing master strategist James Carville, with his cornpone terminology and comfortable southern drawl. Hell, if you were to watch Primary Colors back to back with the documentary The War Room, which details the final days of Clinton’s presidential campaign in verite style, you would see scenes that play like mirror images of each other.

But I think such comparisons only go so far, and don’t really speak to Primary Colors’ strengths: this is not a biopic about running for president. It’s a historical fiction about a presidential campaign. Travolta does give one of his best performances as the Arkansas governor Jack Stanton, but the film wisely keeps its distance from him, finding a center not with Stanton, but with Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a privileged and genial man who is, within a few innocent steps, dragged into the middle of managing Stanton’s campaign. At first he thinks this is an attempt to import some political capital (Henry is the son of a civil rights leader, which looks good), but Henry is an idealist, and within days he’s seeing something within Stanton that could be very special. The film never tells us much about Jack Stanton, pointedly, because it is instead focused on what Henry, Richard Jenkins (Thornton) and others hear, see, say and think about Stanton. The scenes you presume we would get in a movie about the life of the Clintons (marital troubles, for example)…well, we don’t. In fact, there are no scenes in the movie where Jack Stanton and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) are alone together, or even alone separately. In a way, the movie’s not about them, at all.

Moreover, Primary Colors is a movie that is about politics but is not, I think, overtly political. Yes, Jack Stanton is a Democrat, and his campaign is run by hotshots who would prefer to ignore the flaws in their boss’ character and focus on the good, but campaigns are like that on both sides. Hope is the name of the game, here, not finer points of policy, and unless you believe that idealism mixed with moral compromise is a firmly liberal game, I think there’s something to admire here no matter what your persuasion. The film’s thesis can maybe be summed up like this: it takes a certain type of man to run for president, and a different type of man to actually be president, and eventually there comes a point where one must choose.

Like All the President’s Men, Zodiac, or The Social Network, Primary Colors is a drama that is packed to the gills: with information and insider knowledge, and also opinion, and with individuals who are allowed to develop even when sitting on the sidelines. Even when characters come close to making speeches, they quickly withdraw after making their point, because these are smart people who don’t pad their conversations. Elaine May’s intelligent (and cheerfully vulgar) screenplay knows a heck of a lot: not just about the nuts and bolts of running for office; that’s relatively easy. What’s difficult is dramatizing that knowledge, and May does a remarkable job of folding facts into plot and character, and more facts into flat-out humor. I can’t recall many other movies like this that give us such a persuasive behind-the-scenes look at something while at the same time being so entertaining, and so surprisingly funny.

Some of the jokes are broad, such as when Richard tags along for a working dinner at an Alabama rib joint, and engages in what Susan dubs a “mama-thon,” where the men take turns singing the praises of their mothers; that’s not the joke—it’s the performances and perfectly-timed framing that lends the humor. Others are quieter, like running gag involving a the team checking into what looks like the exact same hotel room. And others are expertly-poised ballets of humor and character, such as when the team approaches Susan about her husband’s previous affairs, and thanks to someone else’s presence they launch into a tortured metaphor that eventually Susan understands all too well (it’s a little masterpiece of facial acting by Thompson).

The movie also has great insight in the culture of political campaigns, and how quickly they gain momentum, even to the people inside them. We see ramshackle beginnings: a key early conversation between Henry and Susan occurs not in an office or conference room, but in a cheap hotel kitchenette over cups of tea at 4AM. We also get a sense of who Stanton is up against, and who is on his side. We eavesdrop on conversations and use context clues to piece together strategy and terminology. We sit in on a debate, primarily through the eyes of staffers watching in the next room on a closed-circuit TV, as they react to every word like they’re at a Super Bowl party. We see how quickly the campaign goes into damage-control mode after one reporter’s question makes it clear that the press is now going to treat Stanton like a vulnerable front-runner. It is often said that for a campaign staffer, your life becomes the campaign, and the film illustrates how that could be.

There are other secrets about political campaigns that are spilled in the movie, ones we would be wise to take to heart. Take the early scene where Stanton listens to the plight of a dyslexic man, and bonds with him over a story about his illiterate Uncle Charlie, a war hero who even in his end days was too embarrassed to admit he couldn’t read. Great story. Brings the house down. One small problem: we eventually meet Uncle Charlie, and he bears no resemblance to the character in Stanton’s story. Does it really matter that Stanton told a white lie, if the meaning underneath his story was just as heartfelt. I don’t know. Does it?

As a proactive stance against attacks, Susan brings in a big gun: the foul-mouthed, brassy, formerly insane Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), who bills herself as “The Dustbuster” (“I’m stronger than dirt!”) Libby, in a plum performance if there ever was one by Bates (she was Oscar nominated for her work here), is the kind of no-nonsense ballbuster who defends Jack Stanton even against allegations that are probably true. When a woman comes forward (certainly not Gennifer Flowers—no of course not) Libby sniffs out the incriminating tapes as fabrications, but only after ranting at Jack: “We should have castrated you when we had the chance.” Also, listen to her as she pulls a revolver and aims it at the Netherlands of a scummy tabloid leech: “I’m a gay lesbian woman. I do not mythologize the male sexual organ.”

Libby, though at first a character who seems trucked in to provide colorful support, is much more vital than we would anticipate. In many ways, she shares the film’s heart with Henry, for despite her crassness she is devoutly idealistic about the Stantons, romanticizing their better qualities even while recognizing their flaws. However some flaws cannot be overlooked, and a concluding passage that deals with damaging information on an opponent (Larry Hagman) leads to a climactic scene that is just flat-out great writing. Both Henry and Libby have their tussles with disillusionment over the course of the film, but while Henry’s is painful, Libby’s hurts more, because it threatens the very bedrock of her long-time friendship with the Stantons. While no doubt there are few corollaries to Libby and an actual real-life person, her exit in the film packs a thematic whallop that a truer story probably could not.

The film is quick: not in length (150 minutes), but in the way it dispenses details. There are so many of them, some just throwaways. In informs us of the growing fondness (if you can call it that) between Henry and Richard, but doesn’t overly show it to us, because we don’t need to see it. Henry’s affair with the lovely Daisy (Maura Tierney) is brought up and dismissed in a handful of scenes without any dialogue; it’s not treated as a big deal, because in real life it wouldn’t be. Arrivals and departures are treated antiseptically. The growing distance within the Stanton’s marriage is conveyed through insert shots of little things, and side glances that Nichols trusts us to notice. We grow to appreciate the strategy of Stanton’s campaign stops, so that when a New York advisor pushes Richard aside and advocates going on Geraldo, it feels as wrong to us as it does to everyone else. Even a sequence set in Miami that edges close to travelogue is excused by a throwaway line (Libby: “I always wanted to see this hotel.”) May’s screenplay and Nichols’ direction are characteristically breathless. This is a rare movie about a serious topic that wastes not one moment. Not one.

The film’s closing statement is fascinating, because it’s rare to see a big-budget Hollywood movie made with huge stars that shies away from didactics entirely. One point is supplied by Libby, and a rebuttal is made by Stanton, in one of Travolta’s best scenes. The film raises questions of ethics, loyalty, and even morality, but gifts them with complexity, so that even when answers are given to the questions raised, the film trusts our judgment that they may not be correct ones. Even the film’s final shot rests on a smile that is ambiguous at best.  And even to the very end, Jack Stanton is allowed his secrets. Who is this guy? Does he really believe what he says? How about now? At times he strikes one as endearingly sincere, and others he comes across like the most charming bullshit artist you’ve ever met. Maybe that best sums up Clinton, also.

It’s been said time and again that the arts are a haven for liberal ideology. That’s fair, although perhaps explainable, since the arts tend to draw from pools of talent that value empathy and curiosity, and many of those camps—some even by definition—are unshakably liberal. However, a liberal ideology does not make a film good or bad (see Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale, which argues against the death penalty in a disgustingly dishonest way). What makes a film like this good is complexity, and Primary Colors has it in spades. One would expect going in that the film would be a fawning portrait of the Stantons/Clintons, but it is—if you look closely—not that at all. I don’t think Primary Colors particularly likes the Stantons, or dislikes them, for that matter. It observes them, and allows us the freedom to make up our own minds.

Watching the film again, I was reminded of the strengths (and weaknesses) of Mike Nichols, as a director. Nichols, a theater veteran, does not necessarily pick the best scripts to work on (See Wolf or What Planet Are You From—no wait, don’t). But he brims with trust for actors, perhaps because theater is an actor’s medium, while film is sometimes not. His juggling act here, of keeping numerous characters alive, even during bits of background action, is exquisite. For further proof, notice the way Nichols develops the lesbian relationship between Libby and her lover—done mainly with little bits of business in the background of more important scenes, but also done with thorough command of who these people are.

As we head full swing into primary season (this time on the Republican side), I’ve been reminded of Primary Colors again and again—it’s one of my favorite political films ever made, although we could also put All The President’s Men on that list, as well as incisive comedies like Dr. Strangelove and In the Loop. This is a movie that came and went in spring of 1998, as decent reviews combated against audiences voting “no” with their wallets. As the film was released on the lip of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, perhaps people didn’t want an even-handed look at a man like Clinton…or maybe his past business was now just old news. That’s a shame, because Primary Colors is now one of those truly great films that, to me, no one ever talks about anymore. Odd, since aside from a few superficial details, it has not dated, despite telling a story that is technically 20 years old.

Well, and also one major detail. Henry, who tires quickly of men telling them how much they admired his father, the civil rights activist, can be seen as an interesting bridge between the time of Martin Luther King and that of Barack Obama. In fact, Henry even looks a little like Obama at times, and his core of optimism (which is energized by Stanton and then threatened as the story progresses), brings to mind the hope that was stirred in some during Obama’s rise to office, to be later buffeted by disappointment. One little moment the film doesn’t harp on is when Libby reminds Henry that men like his father bought him the luxury of being only occasionally disappointed in our leaders, instead of being thoroughly jaded.

We invest so much time in politics. Campaign staffers squirrel their lives away, while the news media operate at the beck and call of photo ops and speeches over and over again. Even us regular citizens at home watch the debates, and read the papers, and spend so much time building some people up and tearing others down. Why do we do it? Because it’s human nature to want to believe in something bigger than yourself, despite all evidence to the contrary. Sometime it’s religion, sometimes it’s a hobby, and sometimes it’s politics. Because we have to believe. We want to believe.

There’s a scene in Primary Colors where Jack Stanton addresses a crowd of unemployed steel workers and, instead of promising them empty platitudes that involve getting their jobs back, he tells the truth, and urges them to motivate themselves. There’s murmuring. Some unhappiness. But it comes from Stanton’s heart. “He’s lost ‘em,” says a staffer, scanning the crowd. Henry’s unblinking reply is as vulgar as it is perfectly concise: “F**k ‘em. He’s got me.”

GRADE: A

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 1972, 1974 – The Godfather & The Godfather, Part II

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1999 – Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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