Projections - Movie Reviews

Primary Colors

In the hands of Director Mike Nichols Primary Colors an exceptional film.

The journey to the White House by Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) explores the exaltation of the highs and the crushing lows of political campaigns.  It gets down and dirty and rises to idealism as the candidate hits his stride.  If it touches on the campaign of President Clinton, it paints a picture of a rag tag band of followers who believe in a candidate - a candidate with a message and a wandering eye.

In the beginning the story is outlandish, ridiculous, mocking, and filled with bumbling comedy.  The second half is serious, engrossing drama.

There have been over 60 films produced about presidents but few about political campaigns. The Candidate with Robert Redford in 1972 and The Seduction of Joe Tynan in 1979 come to mind but the process has never been presented as honestly, powerfully or as balanced as Nicholls' Primary Colors.

Few people know Jack Stanton at the beginning, but no one knew Jimmy Carter when he washed out his own socks in a hotel sink each night as he moved across the country promoting himself by stating "Hi, I'm Jimmy Carter and I'm running for President." When it doesn't run smoothly, Jack Stanton curses, kicks and eats doughnuts.  His wife Susan (Emma Thompson) thinks and maneuvers; she appears to be the thinker, but he is the driving force.  His ambition won't break a pledge he made to himself that he won't go negative.  That one was stolen from Senator Paul Tsongas who was also a candidate in the 1992 campaign.  But Stanton holds to it throughout the primary campaign until he is forced to make the hard decision whether or not to expose Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman) as a drug user.

The characters are rich, full and real.  Travolta exaggerates movements that President Clinton uses and he is a little overboard early on but as the power of the story unfolds he becomes his own Jack Stanton, candidate for president.  Larry Hagman is the best he has ever been as an elderly senator who enters the race late to stop Stanton.  He brings the dignity and commitment of George McGovern and the statesmanship of Wilson to his part as he climbs to the top and falls in the end.  Emma Thompson's character grits at the process; it's her determination to move her husband that fires the organization of the campaign.

Stanton is as confident as she is tenuous about their success.  He is a big huggy bear type like Tip O'Neal and as far from the straight style of Mike Dukakis as can be.  He is the warm, touching candidate who revels in having people around him; he appears not to need any privacy.

Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is the campaign manager who tells the story.  He details the hand movements of Stanton and what they mean.  He is also seduced by the Stanton Dream.  John Dean's book, Blind Ambition explains how easy it is to be seduced by power.  Burton is seduced by Stanton's blatant commitment to move the country and his ability to understand the emotional needs of voters.

Kathy Bates as Libby brings the most comedy and the most drama to the film.  She is foul mouthed, dominant, eccentric, deadly loyal and secretly fragile.  It's a great part and she makes the most of it.

The story, which evolves from comical to powerful quickly and suddenly, parallels reality at times, but it is the performances and direction that make this one of the best films of the year.  Director Nicholls folds the characters in and out of the campaign trail with realistic trivia, pressure, commitment, pain, victory, defeat and weariness which comes during the grueling process of a campaign.  He weaves silly situations and dramatic ones which frame the characters back to back for contrast.

This is less about politics and more about people in politics.  These people are compelling, interesting and flawed.  In the end John Travolta finds it easy to convince the nation that life could be better for all of us, if Jack Stanton were President.

It is rated R for language.

Primary Colors
A Top Ten pick for 1998

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