Primary Colors

Charles Taylor reviews 'Primary Colors,' directed by Mike Nichols and starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson and Adrian Lester.

By Charles Taylor

Published March 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

As a president, Bill Clinton is what my wife would call the quintessential bad boyfriend: the guy you can't help falling for who'll let you down every time. As a director, Mike Nichols has always been what people call the quintessential politician: the smoothie who talks a good game but won't let himself be pinned down on anything. Pauline Kael nailed his approach to making movies in her review of "Carnal Knowledge" when she likened it to "a neon sign that spells out the soullessness of neon."

Nichols' film of Joe Klein's novel "Primary Colors" isn't just about the necessary compromises that the political process entails. It's a compromise in itself, a slack, tepid picture stuck in a no man's land between satire and drama. Clinton haters can take the film as proof of the president's dishonesty, and Clinton lovers can read it as an affirmation of his flawed humanity. That's less the result of any calculated shrewdness on Nichols' part than the inevitable result of his standard cool, distanced superiority.

Politics inevitably break the hearts of idealistic naifs who equate any shimmying, any compromise, with corruption. Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a young black college teacher, former political aide and grandson of a famous civil rights leader who signs on to the presidential campaign of Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta), is just that kind of idealist. Nichols is close to the other end of the spectrum. Watching "Primary Colors," I never once got the feeling that Nichols believed it mattered a whit who is elected.

That strikes me as an awfully strange approach to adapting a novel that is so specifically about the disillusionment that afflicted those of us who fell for Clinton. What Klein does so well in the book's opening pages is evoke Clinton's political gift for making people feel, in their fleeting contact with him, that they, as individuals, count. "They were all over him, clapping his back, shaking his hand, hugging him. He didn't back off, keep his space, the way most pols would; he leaned into them, and seemed to get as much satisfaction from touching them, draping his big arm over their shoulders, as they got from him."

As Stanton/Clinton, Travolta gives an accurate, sometimes uncanny impersonation. He gets that rheumy look that comes over Clinton when he is moved by something, that almost-squint of empathy that makes you feel he is both at the mercy of his emotions and appraising them for later use. During a televised debate, when an opponent asks Stanton if there is anything he doesn't believe in, the unashamed moral passion of Travolta's answer might remind you why you ever believed in Clinton (if you did). But these are moments caught on the fly. Travolta never goes beyond impersonation. He's primed to play caricature here, and that's often what Elaine May's script supplies him with: talking about his next move with doughnut dust around his mouth, or exclaiming, "I just can't catch a break!" when he's told a pregnant black teenager is claiming he got her that way. Much of what Travolta does is so transparently a pol's glad-handing that you don't believe for a second anyone would be taken in by him. And if you can't believe there's anything genuine in Stanton, then the film's attempts to shift into drama are doomed, because nothing is at stake.

It's even worse for Emma Thompson as Stanton's wife, Susan. Thompson is
marvelous at suggesting what this stunningly intelligent woman gives up to
support her husband. When, over dinner, a potential political ally asks
Susan if she minds if he and Stanton discuss business, she answers, "Oh,
no, that's how I learn," and Thompson lets you know just what it costs
Susan's pride to say those words. Thompson shows how what Susan suppresses
in public comes out in private as finely honed rage. But the movie hasn't
laid the foundation that would allow Thompson's performance to deepen.
There's no anguish when Susan slaps Jack after hearing a news report of his
infidelity, and no anguish in his sheepish apology -- just the sense of
watching gossip drained of juice for the purpose of being passed off as
"human drama."

A big part of that problem is Klein's book, which achieves neither the
imaginative transformation that fiction can give to real events nor the
specificity that comes from careful, acknowledged -- and honestly reported
-- observation. "Primary Colors," the book, is all innuendo. I'm hardly the
first person to note that Klein's publishing his novel anonymously was a
clever, sleazy ploy, allowing him to imply that the book was written by
someone in a position to know all the dirty laundry, and also permitting
him to take liberties that he couldn't with nonfiction .

What wasn't foreseeable is how Klein's desire to have it both ways suits
everything noncommittal about Nichols' slick, shallow and finally
sour style. It wasn't until I saw the PBS "American Masters" special on
Nichols and May a few years back that what had always bugged me about his
movies clicked. As a director, Nichols seems never to have realized that drama takes place
on a deeper level than revue comedy (although his astonishing performance
last year in "The Designated Mourner" doesn't have that weakness).
Sincerity and simplicity seem beyond him when he's behind the camera. He
conceives of people as readily classifiable types. Because he has no
interest in the mystery of human beings, he's unable to shoot a simple
scene of a man speaking about how enrolling in an adult-literacy program
changed his life in a way that makes you feel he's really connected with
the actor. (Luckily, the actor in this case, the terrific Mykelti
Williamson, knows how to connect with an audience.)

Which isn't to say that "Primary Colors" would be a better movie if it
labeled Stanton solely as either a political operator or as a true
believer. It's just that Nichols doesn't have enough complexity as a
filmmaker to see how both those sides of a character can be inextricable
parts of the whole. His intentions change from scene to scene, from satire
to black comedy to naturalistic drama. Sometimes Nichols seems to be
coasting on the naughtiness of this insider's glimpse of life on the
campaign trail; other times the movie is in poker-faced earnest. It's a
confused, rhythmless piece of work. Characters like Billy Bob Thornton's
James Carville figure and Maura Tierney's Daisy drop out of the movie
before their dissatisfactions with the Stanton campaign have registered.
And given that Lester's Henry, with his thin, light voice, has worked for a
congressman, the character's naiveté about the political process seems
suspect and annoying. It's impossible to see how Henry's political
education could resonate in the context of Nichols' only-a-game cynicism.
The deepest conviction here is that nothing changes, no candidate is
substantially different from any other and that only romantic fools would
think otherwise.

That's just the kind of approach that journalists -- dismissive of any
claim that politicians are capable of being morally fired up by issues or
that voters see anything beyond carefully managed image -- latch onto as a
true, accurate view of politics. And damned if, in the current New Yorker,
the magazine's senior editor (and former chief speech writer to Jimmy
Carter) Hendrik Hertzberg doesn't laud "Primary Colors" as virtually the
only "morally and humanly complex" American film about the American
electoral process. For Hertzberg, "Primary Colors" is an antidote to the
sentimentality that he claims has pervaded American political movies since
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," what he dismisses as "hatred of politics
masked by ostentatious reverence for the constitutional forms that politics
alone can bring to life." He identifies the main carrier of this disease
(that's how he describes it) in "Primary Colors" as Kathy Bates' Libby
Holden (a character based on Clinton assistant Betsey Wright), an old
colleague of the Stantons with many campaigns and one mental breakdown
under her belt.

"Primary Colors" finally hinges on the limits beyond which Libby will not
go for either old friends or political expediency. She and Henry are
dispatched to dig up dirt on Stanton's prime opponent, Gov. Fred Picker
(Larry Hagman). What they find is damaging enough, though something quite
different from the hotbed of corruption they expected. Libby tells the
Stantons that using the information would turn them into the type of people
they once claimed to despise. The Stantons can't use it fast enough, and
whatever shred of idealism Libby has left is crushed.

The Stantons' justifications for leaking the material get as much of a
hearing as Libby's reasons for suppressing it. And the movie makes it clear
that Libby has no tolerance for the sometimes intolerable choices that
politics entails. The high road she advocates might, finally, be the yellow
brick road; she doesn't grasp that you can't do anything for people if you
don't get elected. But if that sounds like a more mature view of politics
on paper, it doesn't feel like one when you're watching this movie, because
we feel an emotional attachment to Libby, and we don't to the Stantons.
Bates, who is sensational, is the only character here the audience
does connect with. She takes what at first appears to be a stock
role -- raucous and profane -- and gives it a genuine earthiness and,
surprisingly, a genuine delicacy. In the world of real politics,
big-hearted Libby is cruising for a bruising, but she has the sort of
passion that is, finally, the only moral justification for all the
machinations and maneuvers and compromises politics entails. We don't know
what fires up Jack Stanton, or even if anything does. Bates doesn't get the
final word, but she subverts everything that follows her performance.

What makes "Primary Colors" a movie of its moment is less that it appears
at a time when Clinton is being bedeviled by scandals (the dumb luck
of "Wag the Dog," its release coinciding with both the Lewinsky affair and
the Iraq standoff, is far more pertinent on that score) than that it makes
passion in politics look as naive as the expectation of purity, the
province of unbalanced losers. That would surely seem strange to the
political geniuses (like LBJ) who saw the deal-making of politics as the
means to realizing a vision. But visions, like passion, seem to be deeply
unfashionable in politics right now. Nichols doesn't give us the poignancy
of a compromised victory, or of an empty victory, because he doesn't seem
to have a notion that there's such a thing as a substantive victory. If
"Primary Colors" doesn't attract an audience it won't be because, as
Hertzberg suggests, Americans are rubes who can't deal with the hard truths
("'Primary Colors' has something you don't often encounter at the
multiplex: wisdom," he wrote). But it may be because it confirms our most
cynical and despairing suspicions that getting elected isn't a means, even
a sometimes dirty means, to anything but an end in itself. That turns out
to be a good fit for Nichols, who, as a filmmaker, has always cared most
about appearing knowing and above it all. In the world outlined by "Primary
Colors," this is as good as a declaration of candidacy.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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