Picks and Pans Review: Primary Colors
John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney
Movies that tap into the political Zeitgeist either improve with age or shrivel away to insignificance. Often only time will tell. That just may be the case with Primary Colors, a satirical comedy drama that is so of the moment it's almost too bizarrely jarring to watch right now. Yes, this movie version of the notorious political roman-à-clef published in 1996 by Anonymous (later unmasked as journalist Joe Klein) is plenty funny, plenty smart about politics and plenty filled with juicy performances. But a viewer watching Primary Colors keeps feeling like a Ping-Pong ball being smacked between fact and fiction.
At its heart, Primary Colors is about the loss of innocence. The movie's protagonist is a young political aide, Henry Burton (Lester, a British stage star), who enlists in the presidential campaign of the film's Bill Clinton stand-in, a southern governor named Jack Stanton (Travolta). Burton desperately wants to believe he is backing a righteous candidate. Soon, as the campaign lurches from crisis to crisis, most of them precipitated by Stanton's inability to keep his pants zippered, disillusionment sets in. Our hero has to decide if he will stick with a candidate who does bad things both in his personal life and to get elected but who will do good things for the country. Anyone who has ever been in a voting booth knows the feeling.
Burton's struggle with his conscience is never all that compelling. The character always seems a little distant, with the movie coming most to life when Travolta—boy, is this guy good—takes center screen. He plays Stanton as a man of voracious appetites, for food, for women and for approval. This Stanton is out to seduce anyone and everyone, be it babes he wants to bed, voters or wavering aides. With his hair gone to gray, his belly going soft and his adoption of a good ol' boy accent, Travolta does an eerily dead-on, almost cartoony imitation of Clinton, one that captures not only the appearance and mannerisms of the man but his spirit as well. It is not a flattering portrait.
Although both director Mike Nichols and Travolta have repeatedly said they are pals of the current White House occupant and had no intention of hurting him, Primary Colors adds up to a mighty damning indictment. With friends like this, Clinton might want to revise his enemies list. (R)
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