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Primary Colors

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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Primary Colors was a runaway bestseller upon its publication in February 1996. Now director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May have brought the novel to the big screen in an uneven, frequently lifeless but occasionally stunning film version.

There is a moment in Primary Colors, about halfway through the movie, when Jack Stanton's bid for the Presidency of the United States looks to be undone by allegations of extramarital affairs. His political consultants and campaign manager watch the latest news broadcast in agony. However, Jack Stanton is nowhere in sight. While everyone else--including his wife--tries to figure out how Jack can survive the newest barrage of allegations, the camera begins a long tracking shot, away from the hotel room and across a wide parking lot--toward a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, where Jack Stanton sits at the counter, talking to the clerk. Jack's in his element, doing what he does best, talking to people, shaking hands, feeling their pain--for Jack really cares. He wants to help people and he wants to make this country better. Problem is, he just can't keep his fly zipped. The slow tracking shot toward Jack is one of the finest moments in Primary Colors. It emphasizes Jack's desire, his lust for absorbing pain. He's like a sponge who sucks up stories endlessly--from an illiterate man studying to read, from a clerk with a game leg, from a consultant whose mamma is dying: he hears the pain and ensures everyone that he knows what they're talking about. He tells stories about his Uncle Charlie, who returned home a war veteran and then languished on his couch because he was afraid to let anyone know he couldn't read. And everyone eats it up, especially as the tears are rolling down his face and he's giving everyone a hug. Problem is, Jack Stanton manufactures the stories. Uncle Charlie wasn't a war hero and he wasn't illiterate. There lies the paradox--can someone who frequently indulges in extramarital affairs, who makes up stories for his constituents--can they still be sincerely interested in helping the American people? And the answer the movie gives is a resounding yes. While everyone else on his campaign team scrambles to keep Jack's bid for the Presidency afloat, Jack is more concerned about absorbing the pain of a doughnut maker. It's a great, great scene. If only the rest of the movie were this good . . .

Part of the problem is John Travolta. Here, we get one of the most charismatic actors on this planet, but in Primary Colors he has a glazed look in his eyes, like a wax dummy. Travolta has the mannerisms, the gestures, the speech inflections down pat--as he if were imitating Bill Clinton on "Saturday Night Live"--but he conveys only a hint of Clinton's charisma and virtually none of his intelligence and quick wit. To be fair, the screenplay itself only gives Travolta a handful of opportunities to really do much acting. For the most part, the movie tells its story in little bits and pieces. Before scenes have time to accumulate much force, or to allow us to slip behind the Jack Stanton exterior, the scenes are over. There are a few exceptions, such as the scene near the end of the movie when Jack tries to convince his campaign manager to stick with him. As the camera falls on Travolta completely, he makes the sales pitch--and it sticks. He hits the mark. So it's a shame that Travolta wasn't give more room with the role--that real scenes weren't written for him and not just snippets.

Because the movie is ostensibly told through the eyes of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), Jack Stanton's campaign manager, much of the movie focuses on Henry as he struggles with his own desire to truly believe in his candidate and the political creature (with a voracious sexual appetite) that he ends up serving. But Henry isn't a particularly interesting character. The situation itself doesn't present many alternatives for Henry: either he sees Jack Stanton is human, with all the flaws that that implies, and decides to serve him anyway because he sees Jack still sincerely believes in helping people, or he becomes disillusioned by the campaign and leaves politics. There aren't many alternatives. As a result, the movie isn't very surprising. The privileged glimpses that we get into the presidential campaign aren't that unusual. With television already bombarding us with images of candidates and poking into the personal lives of the candidates with astonishing rapidity, Primary Colors actually ends up as relatively tame compared to the real messes that Clinton finds himself in lately.

Another recent movie, The Apostle, also gives us a very flawed man who sincerely believes in helping people. But Robert Duvall has fire in his eyes and that makes us believe that he could build a congregation and get people to put their faith in his hands. But there is no fire in Travolta's eyes. (And Bill Clinton definitely has fire in his eyes. Every time he speaks you can see the glimmer.) The difference is largely one of focus: while The Apostle completely devotes itself to the plight of the preacher played by Robert Duvall, Primary Colors keeps us at arm's length from Jack Stanton. All the scenes with Jack are told from Henry's perspective. Instead, we get scenes with Kathy Bates as Libby Holden, a campaign trouble-shooter who is digging into the background of Jack's opposition (a no-nonsense governor from Florida played by Larry Hagman). In fact, the climax of the movie takes place with Kathy Bates at center stage. She might have stolen the movie--but her character is little more than a cartoon. She rants and shouts and waves a gun, as if the movie were written for her to steal.

Meanwhile Emma Thompson manages to create the best character in the movie. Part of the reason she succeeds is she isn't trying to imitate her real life counterpart--Hillary Clinton. While Travolta's mannerisms and affectations tend to overwhelm his character, Thompson gives her character an understated intensity that is wholly believable.

Primary Colors contains a handful of excellent scenes, but the rest of the movie is stunningly ordinary--even dull. It offers us typically melodramatic developments in order to wrap up the story and bring the movie to a conclusion. The movie never really devotes itself to Henry so that it can become his movie, and it never really devotes itself to Jack. The filmmakers stop between the two characters, and as a result, neither character becomes compelling.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

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