Primary Colors (1998)

D: Mike Nichols
S: Adrian Lester, John Travolta, Emma Thompson

Satisfying comic drama from Mike Nichols and Elaine May based upon the notorious book by Joe Klein (writing anonymously, but the secret was not kept for long). Given the pedigree of writer and director it is not surprising that the result should be more than just a flash-in-the-pan movie of the moment, but a convincingly layered portrait of individuals facing the terrors of compromise in contemporary life. In this case it also happens to be a political satire, being set during the run up to the Democratic Party's selection of a Presidential candidate. Obviously based upon Bill Clinton, John Travolta plays the quaint Southern Governor Jack Stanton, who employs Adrian Lester to help run his campaign. Disillusioned with the uncaring corporate mentality of contemporary culture, Lester hopes he will find a person who genuinely cares about people and their lives and who will help him to believe in himself. Initially Stanton seems ideal, but as the campaign progresses, scandals and hypocracies emerge which force him to reconsider his attitude.

One of the great strengths of this film is that it is neither as neurotic as some of the dark political dramas of the past nor as simplistic as some of the more recent ones. Instead of arguing either in favour of or against Stanton and his world, it carefully points out that compromise is inevitable and that there really are no such things as 'Primary Colors'. Every character is in some way touched by the necessity to conceal or dissemble, and their motivations are subject to both approval and disapproval on the part of the audience. The only one who seems to hold tightly to ideals of righteousness is veteran Kathy Bates, and her fate is inevitable among those who eventually give way to the grey. You are forced to consider that rather than a series of heinous conspiracies by evil men, the contemporary political landscape is shaped by more ordinary human factors which are all the more terrifying for being familiar from everyday life.

Involving and richly layered, the film unfolds with an equal emphasis on character and plot. Rather than follow it as some kind of allegorical documentary on the Clinton campaign, the audience is invited to identify with the characters on a human level. The drama unfolds in terms of character development rather than the demands of 'what went down on the way to the top'. With Lester serving as our guide to the potentially alienating world of politics and politicians, it manages to generate sympathy and empathy which makes it all the more potent. When the film makes arguments about political issues, or about politics in general, it is not merely dogma. The points emerge naturally from the story and the characters and never seem forced. It acknowledges that politics is about people, and does its best to emphasise human emotions and create believable situations within the political world in which identifiable human beings interact with one another.

As a political film, it is not smug and self-satisfied like the much-praised Wag the Dog. It never assumes an attitude of knowing superiority and does not attempt to be a comprehensive analysis of the political process. It is strongly satirical, though it does not attempt the kind of self-reflexivity that sold Wag the Dog. In many ways it is all the better for it, as Nichols and his writers concentrate on asking the audience to face the moral questions raised by the story rather than pretend they don't matter.

Travolta and Emma Thompson face the difficult challenge of blending mimicry with their own performances as actors. Both rise to it very well, and with by an excellent supporting cast including Billy Bob Thornton and Larry Hagman, the ensemble is superb. Lester makes a likable lead, and only occasionally drops the American accent. He is both an important anchor for the drama and a fully realised character whose personal moral dilemma provides the film with its climax. The actor manages well, especially given the fact that he is billed beneath the more prominent 'stars'.

Primary Colors is a very rewarding film, one of the best of the year. It delivers on every level and is most enjoyable. Those in search of a touch of scandal will find it, but there is much more to this than the giddy thrill of a media moment. Well worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.