The most enjoyable thing about Primary Colors, like the bestseller that inspired it, is its smooth mixture of cynicism and idealism. For two and a half hours, we’re submerged in an insiders’ world of major politics — the frazzled men and women who give up their lives to get someone elected. The movie won’t have the cultural impact that many hope (or fear) it will, but it should serve as a wake-up call to those who are shocked, shocked, when a politician turns out to be a slick dissembler or worse. Of course he is — how do you think he got there? Power corrupts, baby.
The movie, and the book by “Anonymous” (Joe Klein), parallel real-life events and persons in ways I choose not to discuss here, particularly given the current headlines. Directed by Mike Nichols from a witty script by his longtime collaborator Elaine May, Primary Colors is more tragic than tabloid, its concerns more timeless than timely. Its central figure is Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a smart young campaign advisor seduced into the presidential race of Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta). Henry, like everyone else, isn’t quite prepared for Stanton’s personal magnetism — he finds himself on board before he’s even accepted the job.
As played by the donut-wolfing Travolta, Jack is easy and flexible in public, explosively moody in private (there’s a great comic moment involving a cell phone). Travolta turns on the charm; his performance is itself a masterpiece of politicking. Yet he’s most charming at his least ingratiating, when he gives us a peek at Jack’s shrewdness, competitive panic, or irrepressible libido. Travolta’s contradictory Jack Stanton refutes the very American notion that great politicians must also be everything we want them to be as human beings.
Jack’s team, including the sardonic Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and the no-nonsense Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), lose sleep over the campaign without necessarily believing anything they’re saying. Even Jack’s loyal wife Susan (Emma Thompson) has a hard-bitten, realistic attitude towards him, an attitude born of years of weathering his little flings. Thompson is terrific here — she almost steals the movie with one line, when someone apologizes to her for talking shop with Jack over chicken wings; Thompson’s delivery of Susan’s expertly plastic response, “Of course I don’t mind! How else will I learn?”, is worth the price of admission by itself.
When Jack is pulled into mud-slinging tactics, in self-defense against Democratic opponents, Primary Colors successfully straddles the line between comedy and tragedy. Both are present in the character of Libby Holden (Kathy Bates in the great performance of the new year so far), a self-styled “dustbuster” who specializes in neutralizing scandals. Libby goes way back with Jack and Susan, back to the days when everything seemed simpler and clear-cut. Problem is, Jack and Susan have gotten older, smoother, ethically relaxed; Libby has remained a blunt and rigid person, traits that the movie admires. Libby is the film’s holy fool, who digs up dirt on Jack’s competitor (Larry Hagman) and delivers the info to Jack and Susan as a test: Will they use it or spike it? Bates’ reaction when Libby discovers the answer is the finest work she’s done in a movie.
Jack has a scene with Henry, late in the film, in which he talks about the political bullshit necessary to get to the top — and then, once you’re president, you can be honest and get things done! It’s one of the saddest-funniest scenes in recent memory, a succinct capsule review of the life of a politician — a life so tainted by illusion and delusion that even Jack doesn’t seem to know any more whether he believes what he’s saying or is just seducing himself into believing it. We know Jack will triumph (if for no other reason than that his real-world counterpart did), but his victory leaves us feeling both satisfied and hollow. Satisfied, because we’re fond of him, flaws and all; hollow, because we’re still not sure, even as the end credits roll, whether we should trust our fondness.