Saturday 11 January 2020

Movie Review: Primary Colors (1998)

A political drama laced with humour, Primary Colors is an inside look at the raging turmoil within a fledgling election campaign.

Political activist Adrian Lester (Henry Burton) is drawn to the campaign of charismatic candidate Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a governor from an unfancied southern state making an unlikely run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Stanton is a seemingly genuine and idealistic people-person with a love for education reform. He is also a hopeless womanizer with a chequered past.

His wife Susan (Emma Thompson) is involved in the campaign, and Lester joins slobby strategic advisor Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and organizer Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) to bring some operational discipline. When allegations of Stanton's past infidelities are made public, the team turns to researcher Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) to investigate and preempt other skeletons in the closet. Meanwhile Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman) emerges as an unexpected dark horse opponent in the nomination race.

Inspired by Bill Clinton's campaign that culminated in his winning the United States Presidency in 1992, Primary Colors is half of a good movie. Director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May adapt the 1996 book by Joe Klein (initially published anonymously), with Lester the fly-on-the-wall not quite aware how he is being sucked into his first presidential campaign. What he finds on the inside is disorganized chaos barely held together by a ramshackle team, but also a candidate radiating winning charm. Nichols excels in setting the context, introducing the characters and conveying the exhausting nature of a nascent campaign, clueless but enthusiastic workers always on the go, fighting fires and snatching sleep in cars, planes and nondescript motel rooms.

The film's second half shifts to the grind of gathering ammunition for the mudslinging wars. The focus moves away from the Stantons and towards Libby Holden, and the film loses most of its momentum. The narrative works its way to an almost quaint dilemma: the Stanton's outward idealism clashing with the ready appeal of dirty politics when Jack is being subjected to an intense smear campaign. His opponent Governor Picker is the convenient test case, and May chooses a too-easy target to aim at. A high price is incurred as Stanton searches for his moral compass, Primary Colors trying hard to have it both ways by leaving victims on the sidelines.

John Travolta imitates Clinton's mannerisms and excels in walking the fine line where it's always perfectly unclear whether the candidate genuinely cares or is just brilliant at pretending. Emma Thompson as his wife Susan is not given enough to do, her juggling act to keep both tolerance and ambition in the air frequently unconvincing. Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates are colourfully dramatic but also almost cartoonish. Burton suffers in the role of a supposed protagonist who does little other than experience what others are instigating.

Primary Colors is never less than vivid. While the packaging sparkles, the inside machinations are not always as pretty.

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