Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
March 23, 1998
Henry Burton (British stage actor Adrian Lester) is frustrated. He has to live up the legacy his grandfather (a legendary black civil rights worker), and he's grown disillusioned with the futility of working for an ineffective congressman. Politics in general is getting him down. "I have never heard a president use the words 'sacrifice' and 'destiny' without thinking 'bullshit,'" he laments.
When he meets up with southern Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), Henry thinks he may have finally found a politician worthy of support. Stanton may be an underdog in race for the presidency, but he's brilliant stumper and really cares about the lives of his constituents. Henry cautiously joins Jack's campaign and tries to establish some order. Unfortunately, Jack's personal life is almost guaranteed to ruin Henry's efforts. Jack dodged the draft and used special connections to keep himself out of jail. He's also a rampant womanizer and has a short temper. As the campaign progresses, Henry still admires his candidate, but he's beginning to wonder if Jack's charm and good intentions will prevail over his glaring character flaws.
It sounds a lot like the 1992 Democratic primary season, but director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May (working from Joe Klein's anonymously published novel) wisely aim for more than obvious satire. The film does feature dozens of opaque references to the Clinton camp. For example, Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) is a riot as a James Carville-like spin doctor who claims to be more black than Henry. May has a sharp ear for the lingo of campaigners, and many of the speeches and backstage banter sound eerily authentic.
However, once the audience has a chance to get past Travolta's slight but effective impersonation of Slick Willie, Primary Colors becomes an observant look at the lengths a politician has to go to reach power. The tone gets darker as Jack's his deal-making threatens to undermine the campaign's integrity. These moments offer a strange blend of queasiness and poignancy that give the film more impact.
Nichols' pacing through these scenes is often leaden, but the performances he coaxes from his troupe make even the slower sequences watchable. Emma Thompson projects a quiet strength as Jack's long-suffering wife, and Kathy Bates is delightfully feisty and touching as the Governor's "dust buster" (she digs up dirt on his opponents). Thanks to the performances and its willingness to settle for more than a cheap shot at a potentially easy target, Primary Colors will still be worthwhile when President Clinton is merely a name in a history book (R). Rating: 8.
This page was last updated on 03/31/98.