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True Colors?

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What kind of man survives the gauntlet of a presidential campaign? Primary Colors, the novel, asked the question, at length and poignantly, about its nakedly Clintonesque candidate Jack Stanton, and now Primary Colors, the movie, is asking it again, even more poignantly, at a time when the country can talk about little else. At such a time -- good God! -- of endlessly interweaving rumors and facts and news and parody, isn’t a movie that gives us more of the same, in a past-tense factoidal fable of the ‘92 presidential primaries . . . a bit much?

It isn’t. While the tickle of “Anonymous” was in its winking signal that the book’s journalistically unprintable gossip was, deep down, really journalism, we’ve gone a long way down that road in the two years since: Winking signals are scarcely needed anymore. And whatever the tabloids say, Primary Colors the movie is neither political fellatio nor artistic failure. It has not been, nor will it be, outstripped by the news.

Yes, it’s a treasure house of à clef nudges: Travolta and Emma Thompson as southern governor Jack Stanton and wife Susan (the Clintons); Adrian Lester as campaign manager Henry Burton (think Stephanopoulos); Thornton as the Carville-esque strategist Jemmons; Maura Tierney as coordinator Daisy Green (Mandy Grunwald); Kathy Bates as dirt-deflector Libby Holden (Betsey Wright); Larry Hagman as a decent former Florida governor with a besmirched background (take your pick); Gia Carides as whistle-blowing floozy Cashmere McLeod (Gennifer Flowers).

But the chief power of Primary Colors derives from the metaphorical light it sheds on the Clintons’ true-life characters and relationship, and on what has come to be regarded with a derisive snort as the American Political Process. Beyond the salt-peanuts fun of fantasy-meets-reality (and beyond a picture like Wag the Dog, which is pure salt peanuts), Primary Colors is -- from its first flag-waving moments just before the New Hampshire primary to its final scene at Jack Stanton’s inaugural ball, in its perfect pacing and sublime ensemble acting -- an artistically independent work.

Much overlooked in the brouhaha over the authorship of Primary Colors was the fact that it was no potboiler but a real novel, which Klein (in intricate collaboration with Random House’s Dan Menaker) brought off with brio. Yet the book’s great weakness is its narrator and central figure, the black Hotchkiss graduate and Stephanopoulos (and Klein) stand-in Henry Burton. He is that obligatory device, the transparent, all-seeing narrator, and -- well beyond being an assimilated person of color -- is so insistently colorless that we quickly cease to care about him except as a pair of eyes.

The first major contribution Nichols and May made to the film adaptation of Primary Colors was to give body and soul to Henry Burton, to make his Candide figure at once our surrogate and a suffering character in his own right. Nichols has done this by casting someone unknown to American audiences, Adrian Lester, a 27-year-old British stage actor with a sweet, open face and arrestingly expressive dark eyes.

From the moment Lester’s Henry first appears onscreen, watching in astonishment as John Travolta’s Jack Stanton presses the flesh at a Harlem rally, we’re with him -- and we’re with Stanton because Henry is so bowled over by him. As magnetic as Travolta is -- and God knows he is magnetic -- it is Henry’s imprimatur of shock and awe at Stanton’s messy amalgam of nobility and primitive appetite that gives Primary Colors its real gravity.

“It seemed to me important for the audience to become Henry as much as possible,” Nichols says. “I wanted somebody who was an open book, and I loved Adrian’s openness, his innocence, his lack of any anger -- it’s not so easy to find in a young actor.”

The fictional Henry is the son and grandson of Great Men who are something like Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr. “Henry has an awful lot of baggage,” Adrian Lester says. “His father and grandfather made a difference politically and socially. And Henry wants to be a part of history, too, but doesn’t know whether the kinds of dreams and hopes and responsibilities his father and grandfather fought for will be around for him. Then he sees this governor and thinks this guy could really change the face of America.

“One of Mike’s concerns throughout,” Lester says, “was that there should be no point where you think Henry’s sold out. You should always be wondering if he’s sold out or not.”

A scene in Klein’s book where Susan Stanton comes to Henry devastated by her husband’s latest infidelity, then winds up sleeping with the campaign manager, was shot but later cut from the movie. A “Page Six” item in the New York Post claimed that pressure from “Universal biggies” was responsible for the cut, a charge Nichols reacts to sharply.

“Oh, it’s all so pathetic, this fiction,” he says. “I have final cut. They can’t insist on anything. I think it’s about fifteen seconds that’s gone. And it was a little more explicit than it should be under the circumstance -- it was very disturbing, because you expected Susan and Henry to remain the good guys. So now it’s up for grabs, if you want to think it happened. But we’re not saying it happened.”

According to Adrian Lester, vox populi made the decision. “During the test previews, people were going, ‘Oh, no, Henry, don’t,’” he says. “He’d crossed the line.”

Primary Colors is constantly flirting with one line or another, particularly the boundary between fact and fiction. “I knew there were risks in making the movie,” Emma Thompson says. “The connections to D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s documentary about the ‘92 primary The War Room are obvious. The movie did that very risky thing of taking something against the sort of trash barrier -- you hope it’s going to lift off above it because it presents a moral picture that’s genuine, a genuine self-examination.”


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