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'Primary Colors': A Brush With Political Reality

By Stephen Hunter
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 adult themes and profanity
The best thing about "Primary Colors" turns out to be that its palette isn't primary at all: It's full of secondary shadings the pale violet of idealism crushed, the ocher of disappointment, the muted green of compromise. It's as far from the spectrum of the obvious as a movie can get.

Drawn from the bestseller by "Anonymous," it follows a season in hell as an obscure Southern governor tries in the hectic year 1992 to gear up his presidential campaign by surviving an ordeal by primary: State to state, crisis to crisis, hope to hope, Jack Stanton, his formidable wife, Susan, and his crew of merry pranksters fight their way to the big one.

To get to the boring stuff first: Is John Travolta a good Jack Stanton and is Jack Stanton a good Bill Clinton? Mega-affirmatives to both: Travolta has the raspy accent, the eyes that flood with liquefied compassion on a dime, the bad, big body and the good, small body language the man is the Botticelli of handshakes. And when he woos you, he sucks you in like a home-fried Dracula, generating amps of dreamy passion as he takes your soul. He's also got the ego and the ambition and the shamelessness and the con and the hustle and the paradoxical heart that make him believable. And, of course: that unerring instinct for self-destruction, in the form of any female real, virtual, ancient or infant who crosses his path.

And is Emma Thompson a good Susan Stanton and is Susan Stanton a good Hillary Clinton? The answer is an even more emphatic mega-double-ditto: So good is Thompson, in fact, that you feel her presence in a way you don't feel Travolta's. You feel her urgency, steely focus, seriousness of purpose. She's really the one that drives the movie, and twice, when she slaps men who've deeply disappointed her, the slaps echo through the theater like cannon shots, announcing: This woman is armed and dangerous. You feel her core, which is belief.

And belief, really, is what "Primary Colors" is all about. It argues: Once you can fake that, the rest is easy. For the story is sited on the exact fault line where politics itself resides: the crack in the geology of the soul where belief (along with idealism and hope and all the rest of the shining virtues that so animate the young) sits nervously, knowing at any second it can be swallowed up whole by pragmatism (and ruthlessness and ambition and sheer evil).

And the surprise if you have not read the book is that far from the insidey, raunchy look at the doings and undoings, the zippings and unzippings of the Clinton roadshow, it's really that most sensitive of documents, the Bildungsroman. That's a fine mouthful of big, fat German word I couldn't pronounce on a bet, but it means a novel of youth's spiritual growth. The youth here is Henry Burton, played by a British actor named Adrian Lester. How does he do? Let's put it this way: A star is born.

Decryptors insisted that Henry was "a black George Stephanopoulos" in Joe Klein's book. Possibly so. What's more to the point is that alone among the cast, Lester is able to remove his character from identification with the real-life antecedent and make Henry live independently. He is able to give us a human being to cling to and care about throughout the journey. Henry is smart, connected, a real pro despite his relative youth, but he's been fighting the good fight long enough as a liberal congressman's aide. He's burned out on righteousness. He wants to win, for a change. He is looking for a savior or a devil to sell his soul to . . . and maybe he doesn't much care about the difference.

That messiah turns out to be a mountain of man-baby with a froth of frosty, moussey hair, an inner broadcasting station set permanently to station K-RSMA, a vision of a just society, an endless appetite for the human squish of electioneering: Jack Stanton of Hick State, U.S.A. Part of the brilliance here is that even from the start, Henry knows that Stanton's something of a phony. That's evident in an early, brilliant scene where the governor dazzles some illiterate men with the sobbing story of his own uncle, who won the Medal of Honor on Iwo Jima but never had the guts to confess he couldn't read. We suspect, Henry intuits and, yes, it turns out that this is wholly false. But that's the instinct that winners are made of.

So our vantage on the Stanton campaign is entirely Henry's, and its savageries are recorded on the soft tissue of his heart. People come and go, crises flame brightly, are handled, then disappear, most of it achingly familiar. The Gennifer Flowers thing gets a run-through, though the resolution is kinder to the Stanton character than recent disclosures have been to the president. Mario Cuomo's stand-in a Gov. Ozio stalks the candidate, then disappears.

I was disappointed in Billy Bob Thornton's version of James Carville, a character who seemed mopey and indecisive, as well as a drunk and a sexual harasser par excellence. This isn't the dynamic, mischievous, fabulously entertaining Carville of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's documentary "The War Room," a pure warrior fierce as any Genghis (and it's certainly not the latter-day blowhard who never met a Clinton lie he didn't love). On the other hand, Maura Tierney and Paul Guilfoyle are instantly believable as other campaign professionals.

And the movie captures the considerable pleasures of the campaign lifestyle, which has the dramatic urgency of combat without the actual blown jaws and maimed testicles. These folks mainline the adrenaline rush of the fight, and there's plenty of alcohol and sex, the fun of being on the move and fully, totally engaged. It's a movable fast-food feast. You see why some love it more than life itself.

Toward the halfway point, however, "Primary Colors" veers away from the reality of the New Hampshire and New York races in '92 and moves into the purely fictional. One can see why, even if some of the vitality leaves the film, along with the sense of salacious gossip. Novelist Klein, and through him director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May, are searching for a drama to illuminate not merely Stanton's soul that is, if he has one but also Henry's struggle with his own.

The device could frankly be better. The movie fabricates a new candidate, Gov. Fred Picker played by Larry Hagman in a surprisingly dignified performance who comes from nowhere late in the process and by his humanity, his compassion, his intellect and his decency threatens to take the nomination.

But Henry and a tough old scandal-buster and bimbo eruption specialist named Libby Holden, played by Kathy Bates, go underground and manage to dig up something (a little too easily) that they know will destroy Picker. That's the crux of the issue: to destroy or not to destroy? If they destroy, they profit. But it's not so easy: If they don't destroy, the Republicans certainly will and they will profit.

Thus is each character tested: Do we do the right thing for the wrong reason, the wrong thing for the right reason? How low do we go? If we go too low, can we ever get back up?

The incident is shrewdly calculated as a litmus test, and its outcome is less important than what each person makes of it. One makes an exit, two others say full speed ahead, and one Henry swallows and learns to deal with it. His is finally not the youth's belief that Good Men win elections but the grown-up's realization that Shrewd Men do. And he has seen that no man is a hero to his valet or a saint to his campaign manager. That may be the most prescient thing about "Primary Colors," that and the sadness it necessarily engenders as it hews out its relativistic but realistic position: For a true believer, the time comes when he must make peace with the idea that the purest of causes may be advanced by the most impure of champions.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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