Primary Colors Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998

This is the price you pay to lead.

A couple of years back, there was a big hullabaloo in Washington's political circles over the best-selling and thinly-veiled tell-all of the 1992 Clinton Presidential campaign. Much speculation went into who was the author of "Primary Colors", with theories ranging from political pundits, to someone within the Clinton camp itself. When it was revealed that the anonymous author was in fact Joe Klein, a writer for Newsweek magazine, he was promptly fired. Now, "Primary Colors", the film based on that book, has reached the theaters, wedged between two similarly-themed political satires, "Wag the Dog" and the upcoming Warren Beatty effort "Bulworth". And the timing couldn't have been better, riding the free publicity being generated by the daily scandals emerging from the Oval Office.

I'm going to do something outrageous. I'm going to tell the truth.

The politically-savvy should immediately recognize the caricatures being drawn on the screen. Democratic Presidential Candidate Jack Stanton (a hefty John Travolta with a touch of gray), the Governor of some unmentioned Southern State, is Bill Clinton. Stanton's strong-willed wife Susan (Emma Thompson of "Sense and Sensibility") is Hillary Clinton. The idealistic campaign manager Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is George Stephanopoulos. Redneck political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton of "Sling Blade") is James Carville. Campaign adviser Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) is Mandy Grunwald, and 'tougher than dirt' Libby Holden (Kathy Bates of "Titanic") is Betsey Wright. And even Gennifer Flowers makes an appearance in the form of Cashmire McLeod (Gia Carides).

I want to be a part of something that's history.

"Primary Colors" focuses on Burton, a 'true believer' campaign veteran, and the Presidential candidate that he idolizes, Governor Jack Stanton. It is easy to see why so many are behind the down-to-earth Stanton-- his charismatic and relaxed demeanor, and the glib yet empathic speeches he elocutes. Like many of Stanton's other followers, Burton believes that Stanton honestly cares about the American people and has a true vision for a better country. Unfortunately, as the Presidential campaign lumbers along, Burton becomes increasingly disillusioned about Stanton, witnessing the would-be President's fatal flaw of being an incorrigible womanizer. And as the race to the White House picks up steam, Stanton finds it increasingly difficult to keep his closet of skeleton's out of the public eye, with allegations and attacks coming from every direction, including the emergence of a long-suppressed arrest record from the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, and the accusations from a former hairdresser of sexual indiscretions. Desperate to shield their candidate from the glare of negative publicity, the Stanton camp works overtime in damage control. But as the campaign drags on, these die-hard supporters also begin to question their faith in Stanton, as his indiscretions become increasingly difficult to cover up.

Listen, just hold out the leaflets for people... don't stalk them.

Clocking in at two hours and twenty-minutes, the film is surprisingly well-paced, with never a dull moment on the campaign trail, especially with the caustic satirical jabs at the media, the entire American political process, and the overt mudslinging of electoral campaigns. The film is also boosted by several strong performances, including Travolta who mocks Clinton's mannerisms, Thompson as the woman who must endure the philandering of her would-be-President husband, Thornton as the spin doctor who gets the best lines as the unabashed redneck spin doctor, and Bates as the abrasive yet noble dirt-digger. However, because of the plethora of characters to keep track and the constraints of screen time, many characters get the short shrift in PC, or disappear altogether, including Burton's political activist girlfriend, and Daisy Green, who all of a sudden ends up in bed with Burton, only to disappear a few scenes later without a word. It would have been interesting to see the footage that was cut out to keep the running time down.

Does this guy have a chance in hell?
I don't know... I haven't canvassed Hell lately.

However, the emotional core of "Primary Colors" is the enigmatic relationship between Burton and Stanton. Both characters have intriguing arcs-- by the end of the campaign, the outcome of each character's development is left open-ended. Has Burton had his faith in Stanton restored, or has he compromised his ideals of the political process, as a trade-off for allowing Stanton to reach the Oval Office where he can bring about change in the country? And has Stanton redeemed himself in the face of his flaws, coming to an understanding of how his lofty goals are not justified by the underhanded tactics used in the process? Was Stanton ever sincere about his desire to effect change in the American political landscape, or were they just empty buzzwords he used to rally his supporters? In other words, was Stanton a hero with tragic flaws, or a charismatic buffoon? With the final fade-out, these are nagging questions that PC leaves you with.

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