Friday, November 14, 2014

Primary Colors Movie Review

As an obvious companion piece to Wag the Dog, which I revisited recently, I decided to take another look at Primary Colors, the 1998 film based on a novel that was an embellished and somewhat fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s first primary campaign for the presidency. Wag the Dog was a year earlier, but both strike at the heart of late 90s political climate, albeit in very different ways. The first film has, in man way, improved with age, while Primary Colors has become a bit more dated. Wag the Dog remains more relevant today than does Primary Colors. That’s not the fault of director Mike Nichols or Elaine May, who adapted the screenplay (and scored an Oscar nomination, I should point out), but it is a fact that can’t be avoided in any updated conversation about the movie.


John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, the governor of an unnamed southern state whose empathetic storytelling, kind gestures, and big heart have some believing he’s a Real Deal politician – a guy who truly believes in helping people. The problem is that he’s got a penchant for straying outside his marriage to Susan (Emma Thompson). Travolta does an impressive job of mimicking Bill Clinton, but there’s little else going on with the character. Thompson makes Susan a steely political animal who is always calculating in the presence of others, but reveals vulnerability and emotion in private. I see so much more of Hillary Clinton in her now that she had her own failed presidential campaign and tenure as Secretary of State in President Obama’s Cabinet. It’s funny to think that at one time the Clintons were the scrappy underdogs as the Stantons are considered in Nichols’ film.

The story is not just about the details of a presidential campaign, but the ways we come to believe in a particular candidate and wind up disappointed when they don’t live up to our golden expectations. In that respect it’s an interesting film to revisit since Obama’s campaign promise of change and “Yes, We Can” has not played out the way everyone thought it would. It’s about the ideals we hold and how our politicians can’t seem to keep to the same because eventually they all have to succumb to political realities like negative campaigning. It becomes about winning at all costs because you believe once you’re in office, you’ll do more good than the other guy. But at the end of the day you still have to look at yourself in the mirror and look into the eyes of those who believed in you. This is a story about the politicians who can look in that mirror and the supporters who have difficult decisions to make when they learn the truth.

All this is seen through the eyes of Henry (Adrian Lester), a young man who becomes Stanton’s campaign manager. He jumps in with the doe-eyed view that Stanton is the real thing. He’s transfixed by a man who’s made an art out of winning people over and making them feel like old friends. Perhaps part of what makes Primary Colors less interesting now is that it preceded “The West Wing,” a TV series that handled a lot of similar material much better. Henry as a protagonist is not enough however. There’s so little for him to do but get excited when good things happen and dismayed when they don’t. To be sure, Lester’s performance is not the problem. He’s great, but here is a black character whose grandfather was a major player in the Civil Rights movement, who has no black identity. Lester is an English actor so his American accent contains none of the rhythms of African-American speech. More could have been done in the development of this character as a black man in a predominantly white political world. But he comes across as completely removed from the black American experience.

What I found most problematic on this viewing was the film’s inability to settle on a particular tone. From Nichols’ directing you might expect some decent political satire. And there is a bit, but it’s difficult to tell if those things that might be construed as satire are actually played earnestly. So is it then an honest treatise on politics of campaigns in general and that of the Clintons more specifically? Then late in the film it veers toward weightier drama, a completely unexpected tonal shift given how the film starts. All credit is due to Nichols, who handles that shift remarkably well. These could almost be two different movies, but the transition is smooth and the basic ethos is similar. Elaine May as a writer brings her wonderful gift for wit and subtlety. But she can do broad humor too as in the character of Libby, an old friend of the Stantons with a gift for managing the problems that arise. They call her the Dustbuster because she cleans up the dirt. Kathy Bates brings the film’s best and most heartfelt performance to the role.

While that is the case, Libby also comes across as an exaggerated caricature of a spitfire, idealistic, lesbian, ex-mental patient. And this was one of the film’s worst aspects as I watched this time around. It is far too fast and loose with easy stereotypes. Billy Bob Thornton appears as a James Carville-like political strategist who is a cartoon redneck, even going so far as to expose himself to a campaign worker in a crass display of sexual harassment in the workplace. The film also does few favors for southern blacks (the film’s only other significant African-American character is a slow-witted barbecue restaurant owner in Stanton’s home state) or political opponents of Stanton. One a radio show where confronted with facts, a rival of Stanton’s can only manage to sputter a feeble, “but, um, duh, er, I didn’t say that.” It’s a lazy way to show Stanton having the upper hand. “The West Wing” always did heavy lifting when it came to statements made by Bartlett’s opponents.

This is about crafting too perfect a scenario around Jack Stanton that can then be ripped from under him (and us) when we learn, along with Henry and Libby, what his moral weight is really comprised of. Upon learning not only what Jack has done, but what he’s willing to do, how easily he will sacrifice ethics in order to win, Henry and Libby become disillusioned. Libby is older and less stable than Henry and so their responses are very different. It says something very strong about Stanton’s (and Travolta’s) likeability that it’s so easy to forgive his transgressions. That should also tell us something about everyone who, even if they didn’t think he should have been impeached for it, were so vocal about defending Bill Clinton for engaging in sexual activity with a 21-year old White House intern. It may not be criminal, but it is wrong.

It’s just hard to tell where Primary Colors stands on this issue of ethics in politics. To me the final shot of the film seems designed to make us feel good about Henry’s decision. I certainly remember feeling that when I saw the movie at age nineteen. Now at thirty-six, I think it’s kind of sad and cynical, but I’m just not sure Nichols felt that way about it.

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