Later, Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) goes to visit Stanton’s entourage in a hotel suite. Among the people hanging around is an older but vigorous man named Charlie. “Are you Uncle Charlie, the Medal of Honor winner?” he asks, having seen Stanton’s performance earlier. “Well, I’m Uncle Charlie,” the man tells Henry. “And whatever else he says, he’s a master.”
It is because of extended jokes like that one that “Primary Colors” is my favorite movie by Nichols, who died Wednesday at 83. “The Graduate” and “Heartburn,” horror movies disguised as relationship dramas, are magnificent. “The Birdcage” remains tremendously warm and funny, even as the rapid progress of gay rights history has made it look a little dated. But Nichols’s adaptation of Joe Klein’s novel about a fictionalized version of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the dangers of political true-believerism deserves its due as an important entry in the Nichols pantheon.
All Nichols movies are well-cast, but the ensemble in “Primary Colors” is particularly outstanding.
As Jack Stanton, Travolta masters both Bill Clinton’s sleepy smile and public charm, as well as Stanton’s private menace. He’s the kind of guy who will chuck a cellphone out of the window of a moving car, and then, when his wife finds the darn thing, insists “You wouldn’t have found it if I hadn’t thrown it out the car,” turning her exasperated victory on a hugely petty matter into proof of his genius. Lester’s American accent may be a little faulty, but he does nice, subtle work of showing Henry get swept up in Stanton enthusiasm and then spend the next two hours recovering from the infection.
Billy Bob Thornton is at his dirtbag greatest as political consultant Richard Jemmons. In one immortal scene, he unzips his fly in the campaign office in an effort to convince a young aide (Stacy Edwards) to go to bed with him. “I’ve never seen one that … old before,” she tells him with perfect aplomb. And then there is Kathy Bates as longtime Stanton family friend Libby Holden, who has recovered from a stay in a mental hospital and is raring to destroy anyone she thinks poses a threat to her favorite couple. “I am a gay lesbian woman!” she roars, a pistol jammed into the sensitive regions of a local lawyer who has been making money by selling Stanton stories to a national tabloid. “I do not mythologize the male sexual organ!”
And most of all, there is Emma Thompson as Susan Stanton, the best fictional Hillary Rodham Clinton ever put to page or screen. Klein and Nichols both lean into the idea that Susan (and Hillary) is the cool political intelligence in the couple, her near-perfection, as Klein describes it, “a vengeful act” she deploys to draw attention to her husband’s flaws and to make him realize how much he needs her. But rather than rendering her hateful or priggish, Thompson makes Susan lively and funny, as well as a compelling portrait of the cost of propping up a flawed but wildly talented man.
“Do you realize how indescribably boring fly-fishing is?” Susan tells Jack in her first scene in the movie, meeting him on a tarmac in New Hampshire after Jack blew off the head of the Portsmouth Democratic Committee, leaving Susan to chat to the man about his hobbies. “I’ve committed to doing this, this thing with him. I’m going fly-fishing with him, you a——.” Later, at a dinner with Jimmy Ozio (a stand-in for Andrew Cuomo, played by Robert Cicchini), Jimmy asks her,”You don’t mind us talking business, do you?” Susan slips into a perfect pantomime of a slightly dim political wife. “How else will I learn?” she tells Ozio, practically batting her eyelashes.
Nichols owes some of the best material in “Primary Colors” to Klein’s writing. But he and his screenwriter, Elaine May, also smooth off some of the story’s rougher edges and sand down Klein’s purplest prose. And Nichols animates the whole thing with the sort of wry soundtrack that was another one of his hallmarks: “Camptown Ladies” plays over the opening credits, while Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” pokes fun at Henry’s efforts to build a campaign staff out of local volunteers. When he indulges in a spin of Orleans’s “Still the One” in a moment of triumph for the campaign, Nichols manages to earn even the cheesy emotions evoked by the song.
Certainly one of the reasons “Primary Colors” continues to feel fresh and funny, even though it is a dispatch from the pre-Internet era of campaigning and though real life would outpace even Klein’s fervid imagination, is the Clintons’s continued prominence in American political life. But there is more to “Primary Colors” than that.
Even as the zone of privacy politicians can expect when they step onto the national stage has shrunk dramatically, “Primary Colors” assures us that there is something raw and secret still hidden from us. And while sizing up whether the Clintons are worth their baggage and their sometimes-terrible taste in advisers may be a mighty task for political operatives, they are hardly the only couple who present that dilemma. To strive for greatness, you have to accumulate power first. That does not always have to be a dirty process. But it is inevitably a nasty one.