PRIMARY COLORS *** 1/2
It would be good if the American public could appreciate the movie both as Clintonesque and as a kind of docu-drama of our politics, instead of the just the former, which is the majority perception.
The fact is that "Primary Colors" is the filmization of the eponymous novel by former Newsweek writer Joe Klein, published with "Anonymous" as the author. Klein, immediately suspected, at first denied, eventually 'fessed up.
The book was a "roman a clef," (which means "a novel with a key" in French), the kind that shows historical facts and real people but disguised as fiction. The fiction is generally tricky so that the readers have to solve puzzles of identification. The faithful (with some excisions) movie version is a "film a clef," but both incarnations are so transparent that they're not really very clef.
John Travolta plays the Democratic Governor of an unnamed Southern State. His nom-de-film is Jack Stanton, Jack as in Kennedy, Stanton as in Clinton. He is running in the Presidential primaries. His wife Susan (Emma Thompson) is at his side, and she's a damn good campaigner and adviser. To Stanton's staff --initially one of dedicated amateurs --is added the young idealist Henry Burton who wants to be part of history, and about whose late grandfather (someone like Martin Luther King) everyone gushes. Stantonites include spin-doctor southerner Richard Jemmons, cute Daisy Green, troubleshooter-fixer Libby Holden, and others.
Jack and Susan are "constructed" to look and sound as humanly as possible like Bill and Hillary Clinton. Henry Burton, an African American, is derived from George Stephanopoulos (and played by a Brit) --a clever move because Stephanopoulos is Greek-American, hence, in terms of politics, a member of a minority, and Henry is also a member of a minority. Even more than Stephanopoulos, he reinforces the aura of an all-inclusive, non-racist entourage. (It also helps to get more black votes, of course). As Jemmons, Billy Bob Thornton is a projection of James Carville. And so on, down the line.
The film's opening is an inspired, funny visual and aural essay on the variety of hand-shakes the Governor uses. It would stand by itself as a prize-winning short. Then the portrait of Jack is expanded, amplified and constantly added to. The man is a consummate politico who can pretend, manipulate, cajole, inspire, move, cheat, you name it, he can do it.
In his first dramatic appearance, in a New York school where he encourages minority adults to get an education, Stanton follows the sad tale of a black man whom illiteracy has seriously damaged, raptly and with swelling tear ducts. He segues with the heartbreaking story of his own uncle, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner who refused all school scholarships or civilian offers, because--that was his shameful secret-- he too was illiterate. Jack concludes with a moving and realistic paean of education.
Now here's a candidate who knows how to listen, who has sensible ideas, who understands the hurt of others. But hold on! The uncle yarn will turn out to be pure invention. Hold on again ! If quick-change artist Stanton can lie like, well, a politician, he can also feel for other people. That's what makes Jack such a complex, multi-layered fellow, and that's what the movie captures with amazing accuracy. This goes well beyond the simple Jekyll-Hyde transformation and into a far more devious and complicated character.
Jack has the searching eye of a ladies' man eye and a high level of testosterone. In his case as in others, those traits can be inseparable from other talents. It's one big ball of wax. I wager that the name "Jack" was chosen to evoke JFK, not only for fast-thinking one one's feet but for sexual shenanigans too.
Just being next to Stanton flusters so much the New York teacher who hosted the meeting that she keeps stumbling on stairs. She later comes out of Jack's bedroom, while the Governor does not even blink as his helpers, assembled in the hotel suite, watch her exit. Nerves of steel? Nerve? Both.
The complexity, which extends to most other aspects of the movie, makes "Titanic" look like child's play, save for the specials effects. The "PC" director and writer are the once famous cabaret-type duo of Nichols and May who, separated for years, were reunited on the stage, then for the film "The Birdcage." Both are devilishly talented.
I bet they hurried to finish "PC" while the Presidential hubbub was at its then-apex. I also bet that they wished the film could have come out in the Fall of 1998, since that's when the likeliest Oscar candidates will be released. While at today's date (late March 1998), "PC" leads the pack by light-years, the memory of voting Academy members almost always disfavors pre-summer releases.
Back to Henry, who is inducted in Jack's ranks in a whirlwind recruitment. In "PC" we follow everyone, but it is Henry whom we watch as the nearly always present thread, and as though he were the chorus of an ancient Greek play. It is his actions, observations, reactions and reactions to reactions that make us, the audience, identify with this decent, able and likable young man. Henry takes us everywhere, to the mechanisms, agonies and ecstasies of campaigning, including the New Hampshire primary that ends with Jack in second place (to general jubilation) well after the story's mid-point.
Much, if not most of the plot deals with the staff having to counter rumors, accusations or sometimes deliberate lies, and what seems to be a severe case of satyriasis (that's the Don Juan syndrome, the male equivalent of nymphomania). Among them is a phone call that incriminates Jack as he talks sex with a hairdresser deliciously named Cashmere McLeod. To the rescue comes gun-toting old pal Libby (Kathy Bates) who seems to know everything and everyone and is wise to the Age of Electronics. More, I cannot divulge.
The movie is fast, elliptical, humorous, amusing. It is also raunchy in speech, acts and behavior. As a farce, it is amoral, immoral, cynical and very funny. As an expose of political animals it has wild moments and touching moments. It peeks with savvy into the exhausting process of running for office, the higher the office, the more killing the effort.
It pulls no punches, but understands Jack Stanton, warts and all. There's a magnificent night scene, the culmination of the collaboration between director, writer, set designer and the master cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. The camera pulls in doughnut-fancier Jack sitting across the street in a glassed in a doughnut shop, chatting with true sympathy and empathy with the lone, gimpy employee. It's a rare, quiet interlude, an Edward Hopper moment of isolation, except that Jack's presence promises some hope for the proletarian employee. It is also a moving moment of epiphany for Stanton. And it justifies another scene: as Billy Bob is quitting his job (he'll come back), he takes his leave of Henry, asks him to stick with Jack. "This one's worth it."
A speech to laid-off workers, from the heart and with no b.s. is as good as anything Frank Capra ever did, and far more believable. Events that involve talk-show hosts Larry King, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Bill Maher (as themselves), or Rob Reiner (as Izzy Rosenblatt), keep hitting the mark. The Reiner episode catalyzes changes that will affect Jack's rival candidate. This sets in motion a crazy yet believable chain that ends up involving ex-Florida Governor Picker (Larry Hagman), who is the soul of decency --but has a secret.
Hagman underacts with admirable control, at the opposite pole of his famous "Dallas" performances on TV. Which brings me to the performers. They are a superb (and superbly cast) cast. As Susan Stanton, Emma Thompson has a number of choice scenes with terse and fast dialogue as well as reactions. She is attractive, at times seductive, even sexy. Henry is endearing. Libby is a great, bossy, volcanic strategist with pit bull determination, yet I have a feeling that her part is a bit overdone, not in acting but in her skills. Nor am I too convinced by the final episode that concerns Libby. (No, I won't give it away. This is, after all, also a political thriller).
Then there's Travolta, that Lazarus of actors who came back from the dead with "Pulp Fiction." He does very well, yet if you expect a total impersonation of Bill Clinton you simply won't get it. You might have, in a stage-play. But in a film, with its merciless close-ups, Travolta can only be a semi-Clinton.
There's common agreement that the real President is as smart as they come, a well-educated thinker-doer. I'm not swayed by his Rhodes scholarship since many scholars, even famous ones, are really duds. Still, the real Clinton leaves no doubts about his native intelligence.
Travolta can be a very fine actor. He gives a striking, cunning performance, but he cannot change his spots. If you don't allow Jack his very own personality; if you concentrate on the Clinton/Stanton parallels to the detriment of the bigger picture; if you search for convincing Clintonisms, no matter what Travolta does, he does not exactly radiate with brains. In any case, directors and witers have to be intelligent, but thespians don't, so long as they have talent. There's no denying that a person with Jack's characteristics could be a Governor or President. Or become a Hollywood star.
" Le mauvais gout mene au crime" (Stendhal)
Edwin Jahiel's movie reviews are at edwinjahiel.com