Primary Colors
Rating -

Satire (US); 1998; Rated R; 140 Minutes

Cast
John Travolta: Governor Jack Stanton
Emma Thompson: Susan Stanton
Billy Bob Thornton: Richard Jemmons
Adrian Lester: Henry Burton
Maura Tierney: Daisy Green
Kathy Bates: Libby Holden

Produced by Michael Haley, Michele Imperato, Jonathan D. Krane, Neil A. Machlis and Mike Nichols; Directed by Mike Nichols, Screenwritten by Elaine May

Review Uploaded
1/22/99

Written by DAVID KEYES

The media's obsession with the Clinton scandal has grown so overwhelmingly large in broadcast that sometimes, we feel like we know them personally. Their lives are essentially always in the spotlight: the stories of how Hillary controls her husband, how he sneaks away into the oval office for sex sessions with an intern, and how these things spawned a definite possibility of Clinton becoming the first president to be impeached and removed from office seem like events that you only read in false tabloids. But because they are real and swarmed by media coverage, mixed reactions are provoked by us, the viewers. Love them or hate them, the Clintons have lives that are played out as much as they can be on camera. The scenario of the whole controversy about our President having 'inappropriate' relations with a woman half his age feels more like a twist right out of the script of a Soap Opera. The similarity? Both are bizarre. The difference? One of them does not follow the script. The way the Clinton scandal has emerged, no one can predict what kinds of twists and turns lie ahead.

As we are exposed to the real lives of these people on television, we are confronted with similar insights on the movie screen. The recent Hollywood political satires are strange yet fascinating examinations of everyone's favorite government figures, although that doesn't seem to be a filmmaker's intention. The are 'fictionalized' stories of ironically similar political situations, and sometimes, they develop so closely to reality that it's as if we're watching historical satire rather than just an artificial one. In 1997, the events brought on by a growing Clinton scandal prompted "Wag The Dog," a film about a movie director who makes up a fake war to distract attention from the presidential controversy. The recent actions at the White House seem to follow closely to those of the movie a year ago. Clinton orders bomb attacks on Iraq--who doesn't think that this was a last-minute attempt to distract attention from impeachment hearings. Maybe the president watches these movies and is inspired. Next thing you know, he'll start being rude to his public, like the politician in "Bulworth."

But there are differences between "Wag The Dog," "Bulworth" and the astonishing Mike Nichols film, "Primary Colors." This is a movie that tells a similarly-structured story without the intention of ruining the politician's image. Some even suggest that this movie would help the public views on Clinton. Why? We get to meet Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) for the person he really is--a foul-mouthed, bed-hopping, pig-headed, heavy-eating politician who's anxious to be our country's great leader, no matter what the cost. The way he looks and thinks reminds us of our very own president, and both commit moral crimes against the nation, which are seen by the public. The only thing not seen is Clinton's actual private life. Stanton develops in a way that Clinton cannot: we meet him directly, watch his personality flaws surface, examine his every move, and follow his campaign throughout the nation as he is suspected of these false sexual accusations which he tries to subvert. With real life, the media points the finger at Clinton and he barely has enough time to react. He can't have a camera follow him around all day like this. The movie would likely try to make him out to be something great which he is not. When it came down to the grand jury testimony, how would we ever be convinced that he is telling the truth?

"Primary Colors" has all the right intentions; it peals back our social interaction with the governments affairs and exposes what we fear; oh yes, these are human beings. Hard to believe, isn't it? Even harder to believe, it's not always the political figure who is the total fault. Sometimes, others can contribute to the mayhem brought on by the media. But of course, you probably already know that. Just look at Kenneth Starr.

Beginning on a high note and staying there every step of the way, "Primary Colors" is a study of the human tendency of making mistakes, how we cope with it, how we recover, and how we can possibly convince our admirers from understanding. Stanton has a thing for jumping on any woman that breathes, yes, but that's beside the point; if most people really thought that he was this over-horny politician, they would not elect him president. So the movie tries to manipulate us onto his side. And it does it successfully. It puts are faith into Stanton and never lets it go. Even when he is guilty of one of his sexual crimes, we still admire him, because he is, after all, human like us. He brings a certain arrogant charm to a character with faults and problems, and he brainwashes us to honestly, truthfully believe that this is the man we want to run our country. Travolta's on-screen performance is even more convincing than Clinton's was when he was reelected president.

The other roles are just as astonishing and convincing. Kathy Bates plays Libby Holden, a maniacal lesbian whose assignment in Stanton's campaign is to ensure that, if any negative evidence turns up, they find it first. That would protect his image. Emma Thompson, as Jack's wife Susan, is another Oscar-worthy performance. She escalates on the screen so magnificently and fluently that this could almost be a movie strictly about her. She is Hillary Clinton. Billy Bob Thornton as Richard Jemmons is not as strong a performance as his one from "Sling Blade," but for a political satire, it's appropriate. He's sort of a duplicate of Clinton's office official James Carville. Other performances, of course, resemble other White House officials, and as the movie progresses them together, the movie gets this sort of documentary-feel to it, as if it really did tell us about Clinton's rise to power. The only difference is here, we understand why Jack does the things he does (sort of).

He's only human, and human's make mistakes. Just as long as this story doesn't go to trial, he should be fine.


1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
 
 
           
     
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