Movies & Videos
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Item
'Primary Colors': Elect to See It

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 20, 1998

  Movie Critic

Primary Colors
John Travolta is Jack Stanton, Emma Thompson is his wife, Susan, in "Primary Colors." (Universal)

Mike Nichols
John Travolta;
Emma Thompson;
Billy Bob Thornton;
Adrian Lester;
Maura Tierney;
Kathy Bates;
Larry Hagman
Running Time:
2 hours, 23 minutes
For sexual situations and profanity
Is there no escaping this thing? I refer to "Primary Colors," the Mike Nichols and Elaine May adaptation of that rather successful book by Joe "Anonymous" Klein, which tells the tale of a certain Southern governor whose passionate, philandering, pain-feeling momentum carries him over the hurdles thrown down by political rivals, profiteering bimbos, dirt-grubbing journalists and even his most ardent supporters.

No, there is no escaping it. But if you're living in Lewinsky-Tripp Hell – i.e. late 20th-century America – you could do worse than sit back and watch John Travolta and Emma Thompson playing the aspiring First Couple. "Primary Colors" is guilty, deftly orchestrated fun, a thinly veiled excuse to relive the country's No. 1 Obsession: the transparent, yet enigmatic soul of William Jefferson Clinton.

Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a congressional aide whose grandfather was a powerful figure in the civil rights movement, is looking for something, or someone, to believe in. When he considers working for Jack Stanton – the pudgy, frumpy Democratic governor who is beginning a run for the presidency – he is bowled over by the man's directness. This is a guy who actually seems to give a damn about people – even if he does pull out false Reaganesque anecdotes to amplify his sensitivity.

Ignoring the warning signs of Stanton's moral problems, Burton joins the campaign and starts the bumpy ride familiar to any of us with a living room, a TV and CNN. There are problems from the beginning: Stanton's manipulative expunging of an arrest record in his youth, so he could enter political life without a "radical hippie" label following him; and, of course, the women, such as the appropriately named Cashmere McLeod who claims to have had an affair with the governor.

First, the bad news: The final third of the picture becomes more fictionalized – and therefore useless to most of us looking for Stanton/Clinton parallels. It also lapses into rather unclassical melodrama, and the superficial sermonizing becomes a little too much, as we learn what a dirty game politics really is – even for the so-called good guys.

But for the most part, watching "Primary Colors" amounts to sitting in an Athens amphitheater, popping olives and howling at the seedy subtext of an Aristophanes satire. After you take a moment to adjust to Travolta porked out and grayed up the whole thing's a hoot. As you enjoy the performances – all of which are bright and full of life – you relish the interface between reality (at least, the reality as learned from the accursed media) and fiction.

Thompson is a perfect Lady Macbeth, steely, poised and ruthlessly determined to focus on her husband's public goals not his private shortcomings. As campaign hotshot James Carv. . .I mean, Richard Jemmons, Billy Bob Thornton is a good ole stitch, particularly when he bawls uncontrollably over his wonderful mother, only to be comforted by his boss with a hug and a rendition of "You Are My Sunshine."

But the one who steals the movie is Kathy Bates as the cantankerous Libby Holden, Stanton's self-labeled "dust buster" who takes on all the bimbos, rumors and dirty tricks thrown their way. ("I wish we'd castrated you when we got the chance!" she yells at Stanton.) Although she's the tedious voice of moral reason late in the game, her ability to play hard, fast and loose is one of this picture's many pleasures.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar