No matter how many still photos from the movie you’ve already seen, the opening sequence of Primary Colors (Universal) is a kick. The camera noses in tight on a pair of meaty white hands warmly grasping the hands and arms and shoulders of strangers. Then it pulls back, slowly, teasingly, to reveal the face of the man pressing the flesh: It’s John Travolta playing Southern governor and presidential candidate Jack Stanton, a character closely modeled on then-Arkansas governor and 1992 presidential candidate Bill Clinton. Travolta’s eyes pool with Clintonian dew, he smiles with Clintonian good feeling, his hair is grayed and feathered into Clinton’s distinctive just-stepped-out-of-a-salon ‘do, and his body is pillowy, just like the avoirdupois of the factual man on whom the fiction is based.
What a giddy, celebrity-morphing moment! John Travolta as Jack Stanton as Bill Clinton is one of those thrilling confluences in pop culture, a blurring of politics, entertainment, and newspaper headlines that titillates and rewards audiences for thinking the worst about politicians and the best about movie stars. After a week in which no less establishment a publication than The New York Times printed excerpts from a legal deposition in which the President of the United States of America was interrogated, under oath, as to whether he ever asked a certain woman to kiss his penis, Primary Colors is just what this country needs: two-plus hours of entertainment for which none of us are required to buy the plot as gospel truth or reject it as a pack of lies. It’s a stretch of time during which y’all can put aside conversation about genitals and just enjoy Travolta’s gusto.
Primary Colors isn’t nearly as real a deal as the 1993 documentary The War Room; ultimately, it’s mighty inconsequential, a series of wry skits on themes of appetites and campaign fever. But heck, it’s only a movie, not a disquisition, or a defense, or an indictment of current events. It’s fiction, with a snappy cast of characters who, thanks to a sharp-tongued script by the ferociously witty Elaine May, get in some gratifying zingers. It’ll do for diversion. And anyone who worries any deeper about it – studio execs or political advisers, Clinton supporters or detractors – needs to take up a hobby.
The movie is, of course, based on the book of the same name by the author formerly known as Anonymous, now known to be political journalist Joe Klein. But this adaptation has been directed by May’s smooth old compatriot in comedy, Mike Nichols. And those two veterans have played with the focus a bit. Klein’s story is still filtered through the experience of a preppy black campaign staffer (Adrian Lester, a Brit cast for no particular reason I can see except that as an unknown in America, he can most easily play the omniscient blank of a narrator) whose eyes are open to the ways of power, loyalty, temptation, pragmatism, and ethical hairsplitting on the campaign trail. But now the story is even more tellingly about the tantalizing, compartmentalized personality of the charming, weaselly candidate. And now Stanton’s closest advisers – including his wife (Emma Thompson wrestling manfully with an American accent), his political strategist (Billy Bob Thornton in great form), his brash, lesbian, all-purpose troubleshooter and bluntest truth teller (Kathy Bates, in another outsize character role), and assorted additional operatives – more clearly orbit his warm, gaseous celestial self like moons.
Travolta has got this fractured soul down beautifully. (Nichols takes a scene in which the candidate decompresses from bimbo eruptions by engaging in quiet conversation with a doughnut-shack counterman and invests it with the holy intimacy of religious communion: Stanton worshipping at the shrine of Saint Cruller.) But the most surprisingly moving supporting player may well be Larry Hagman as Gov. Fred Picker (a less eccentric Ross Perot may come to mind). As an infinitely decent fellow who enters the presidential race late and appears to be unstoppable unless Stanton’s team can unearth something to trip him up, Hagman damn near glows with serenity and purpose, and Nichols skillfully shoots every Picker scene to a slower metronome beat.
In the syncopated rhythms of Stanton’s morally chaotic pace and Picker’s statesmanlike amble lies a really deep and subtle political story. But that’s for another movie, another administration, another time when the special prosecuting is over and presidential gravitas is once again in fashion. B
Primary Colors STARRING John Travolta Emma Thompson RATED R 143 MINUTES