Primary Colors (15)

Directed by Mike Nichols
Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates.

This thinly disguised dramatisation of Bill Clinton's efforts in winning the nomination to become a presidential candidate was a best selling book a few years back. One of the chief talking points was that the author was "Anonymous"- although a well known political columnist was revealed as the author I think. Of course the current media interest in Bill Clinton's sex life has made the film even more relevant.
We follow Jack Stanton(Travolta) as seen through the eyes of young black political lobbyist Henry Burton(Brit Adrian Lester), the grandson of a civil rights leader. Enticed by Stanton's seemingly genuine caring attitude and honest intentions, he helps run Stanton's campaign to get the democratic nomination for President. Also on the team are redneck cycnic Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates as the bloodhound investigator. Stanton- like Clinton- seems to have a problem with the ladies. He can't get enough of them, and the team have to rescue him from various scrapes and incriminating situations to the dismay of wife Susan(Thompson). Eventually, the scandals and cock ups build until Henry is disillusioned. Do the means justify the ends? Can you be a politician of honour and integrity when you can't keep your trousers on? Is it legitimate to leak dirt to the press on your opponent, even if it will destroy him?
In many ways, the issues raised in this film are exactly those facing the US public. They have a president who as a politician is a big hit, but what about all these other women? Travolta really does a direct impersonation of Clinton, there is no doubt. The voice, the walk, the charm. It is him. Emma Thompson is a spikey, intelligent but ultimately hard headed Hillary-a-like. I haven't read the book, but the film takes a rather sympathetic view. Stanton DOES care, and DOES have the interests of the people at heart. We hardly ever see direct evidence of his infidelities. The Stantons are good people, and possibly more interesting that Bill and Hillary. Thornton and Bates, almost steal the show as the two most extreme characters. I din't know if they are based on real people, but the actors have a ball. Travolta - while the named star- plays it very low key and restrained while others around him get over excited. Maybe Clinton is like that, but he often seems to be doing the least ammount of talking among all the back room team. However, he succeeds in portraying a politician who can convince you that he cares, while never being completely honest. The two Brits, Lester and Thompson are excellent. Our Em occasionally struggles with her accent, but she is perfect in the role. We feel sympathy for her, having to put up with her husbands wandering, but there is no doubt that she is committed to him and the campaign. Lester is a wonderful moral centre. The story is told through his eyes. Young and handsome- and word perfect with that accent- he more than holds his own with some of the very top screen actors. Also worth a mention is Larry Hagman. A stand in candidate who almost steals Stanton's nomination, Hagman is never quite trustworthy because of his "JR" past, but after Hagman's near death from liver faliure a few years back, it is great to see him smooth talking and speech making again.
This film was not a huge success at the US box office, and had its UK release pushed back several times. Perhaps the problem is it was too close to reality for comfort for the US public. After all, the real life revelations of 1998 were far more graphic and sensational. A shame I think, as this sharp and witty political comedy/drama is very enjoyable. Lots of bad language(most of it from Kathy Bates!), implied sex, a bit of violence, homosexuality, drug taking, corruption, suicide. It is all here. Slightly over long, but pretty well paced, good acting, a well written script, this film is worth seeing. 7/10

October 1998

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