The History Place - Movie Review

Primary Colors

By Fred Harvey
The History Place

John Travolta is more Clinton than Clinton in the amazing new comedy-drama Primary Colors directed by Mike Nichols.

Perhaps the American people need a little dose of humor right now amid the daily soap opera surrounding the deeply troubled presidency of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This film does more than just poke fun at the Clintons. It evolves into a neat examination of the power of the American media machine and its insatiable appetite for political intrigue, an appetite which leaves it vulnerable to manipulation by skilled political operatives as well as anyone wanting to become famous by hurling mud at people in power.

The central theme of this film is indeed manipulation as practiced by the media savvy guys and gals running the presidential campaign of Jack Stanton, played by Travolta.

Stanton's staff, like Clinton's, knows they are dealing with a flawed man with huge charisma who has the potential to be a fine president and do good things for the people. His flaws include an ever-present grin masking insincere-sincerity and a bunch of sexual skeletons in his closet which could appear at any time and sink the campaign.

Joining the campaign staff at the beginning of the film is young Henry Burton, the grandson of an African American civil rights leader. Burton, played by Adrian Lester, brings naive "true believerism" and seems like a decent fellow. But he soon finds there isn't much room for decency in high stakes political campaigning.

He learns the cynical ropes from a James Carville clone beautifully played by Billy Bob Thornton. The goal of this mad political chess game is to keep a step ahead of the media and your opponents - to be ready in an instant to counter any flack, and, if necessary, to sling some mud of your own. (See also: The War Room)

Enter Libby Holden, an off-the-wall political fixer (G. Gordon Liddy meets Roseanne) played by Kathy Bates. Things are getting nasty and this is only New Hampshire. The first sex charges against Stanton have already surfaced but the fire is doused live on the Larry King show via an ingenious technical trick.

Speaking of clones, Emma Thompson as Hillary Clinton (Susan Stanton) is the most interesting character in the film. She is smart, ambitious, and desperately wants her husband to win. Like the rest of the campaign staff, she knows he is flawed, but as his wife she must put on a public face and bury her own emotions and feelings of betrayal as more allegations of infidelity surface.

The campaign staff anticipates an easy win after Stanton's main opponent gets sick and abruptly drops out of the race. But a replacement candidate, former Florida Governor Freddy Picker, played by Larry Hagman, surfaces and presents a new challenge. He's plain spoken, honest and decent - in contrast to the now-soiled Jack Stanton.

The Stantons and their staff decide to get nasty and go after Picker. Assigned to dig up dirt on his past, Burton and Holden uncover shocking stuff, but now realize they are descending into Nixonian style campaign tactics and wonder if the ends really justify the means. Victory at any price? What for?

The film concludes with a strong ending, involving us in this political and moral dilemma, and, in reality, the American dilemma.

Overall, the film succeeds on several levels - as a comedy by poking fun at the Clintons - as a satire on present day media madness - and as a drama with deeper meaning, questioning the political status quo.

As the film concluded before a packed showing this reviewer attended, the audience in the theater applauded.

Rated R - For language.

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