How is it that Mike Nichols’s “Primary Colors” has seemed to fall out of prominence since its release in 1998? Here was a timely, bold political satire from one of the great filmmakers in American history, and yet, it hasn’t been available on DVD or Blu-Ray in years; instead, I had to buy it on iTunes to own it. While it’s important that at least that new avenue for watching films has it available, with the possibility of another Clinton presidency less than a week away, you would think someone, be it Universal or The Criterion Collection, would see the film as the great time capsule it is, and make it readily available for collectors, at least. Maybe it’s being suppressed because of the negative light it paints its intended subjects, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Hell, that wouldn’t even crack the Top 10 of worst things they’ve been accused of over the years.
I remember the firestorm that occurred when the book, Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, was anonymously published in 1996, as Bill was getting ready for his re-election campaign. It was a bombshell, and the intrigue was as much about its roman a clef treatment of Clinton’s first presidential campaign as it was about who wrote it. Later in the year, we learned that it had, in fact, been written by Joe Klein, who had covered the Clinton campaign for Newsweek, but the impact it had on the Clinton image was immediate and, I would argue, long-lasting. While Bill would leave office in 2001 as a popular figure, the image of calculating “Slick Willie” and his ambitious “win at all costs” wife has stuck hard with conservatives, and has made Hillary’s own bid for the presidency a source of apoplectic rage for plenty on both sides. Watching the film for the first time in 18 years, it’s hard to imagine the book, if not the movie (which was not a financial success), being a big part of that image.
The main character of the film, however, isn’t either Jack or Susan Stanton, Klein’s stand-ins for Bill and Hillary played so well here by John Travolta (in one of his best and most undervalued performances) and Emma Thompson, but Henry Burton, a young, idealistic political operative who is brought on to be Stanton’s campaign manager during his presidential campaign. Burton is supposedly a stand-in for George Stephanopoulos, but is written as the African-American son of a political activist and played by Adrian Lester in a performance that completely blew me away when the film came out in 1998. Looking at his IMDb credits for this review, he’s worked consistently over the years, but the truth is, his intelligent subtlety in this role as a person who gets an up-close look at the dirty realities of politics should have not only earned him an Oscar nomination here, but propelled him to stardom. Burton is the diametric opposite of Jack Stanton- talented enough to understand how to win, but also green enough behind the ears to not understand what the cost of winning might include. Stanton understands the game all too well, and Burton’s evolution through the film is one of the most engaging parts about it. For a lot of viewers, I’m sure the sell was all about whether Nichols and his equally-great screenwriting partner, Elaine May (who deservingly received an Oscar nod for her work here), would soften the Clinton image in their portrayal of the Stantons, but if it had just been about that, it would have been a perpetually dull movie. Nichols and May are too smart for that, which makes it unsurprising at all as to why they would want to adapt this story. Casting Lester, a relative unknown, at the center of a far better known ensemble, was an inspired touch, and makes the film infinitely more compelling.
The film was released in March 1998, at which point, the Clinton White House had already been rocked by the beginnings of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which is probably part of the reason the film didn’t find an audience. (Why watch a movie like this when something like it is unfolding in real life?) This film gets into the human frailties Stanton/Clinton displayed with two particular infidelity scandals, and seeing how Jack/Bill makes his way out of them. This is where one of the most important characters in the film comes in in Kathy Bates’s Libby Holden, a longtime Stanton friend and “dust-buster” whose job is to figure out the dirt that could be brought up on Stanton, and find a way to either sweep it under the rug or diffuse its impact. During a particularly heated moment in the campaign, Stanton is having a hard time getting around primary challenger Gov. Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), who is about as straight an arrow as anyone’s seen in politics. But nobody is devoid of controversy, and Libby and Henry go looking. What they find would be devastating, but the Jack has been insistent on not running a negative campaign. Lofty morals, but it’s one thing to say that and another thing to do it. Jack is human, after all, although I don’t even know if Libby could have predicted what would happen when they show the Stantons what they found. Bates is astonishing in the role, and the moment of truth she has with the Stantons is some of the finest work the “Misery” Oscar winner has ever done. You will never be able to convince me Dame Judi Dench deserved an Oscar for 15 minutes of royal playing in “Shakespeare in Love” over Bates’s heartbreaking work here. Never in a million years will that be justifiable.
It’s amazing that I’ve gone four paragraphs without mentioning the solid work by Billy Bob Thornton as Richard Jemmons (think James Carville), Maura Tierney as Daisy Green and Paul Guilfoyle as Howard Ferguson, among many others, or about how Travolta and Thompson go beyond mimicry and find a soul to these characters as individuals, but there’s a lot to unpack when looking at this film. How it’s almost been forgotten now that we come to 15 years of the Clintons being in the national spotlight is a shame for a movie that is as exacting and exasperating a look at politics and the how tragedy can become comedy as “Bulworth” or “The Manchurian Candidate.” The days of the idealism of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” are gone. Now, we have a better idea of how things really work. “Primary Colors” forces us to face that truth, and decide what’s better in the long run. Given the way this past election has gone, even “Colors’s” messiness is preferable to what we’ve experienced.