Primary Colors is a portrait of a slob genius (our president, our obsession, our Bill), a large, groping, hungry animal who just happens to possess the most acute antennae in the history of American politics. Is he a noble beast or an ignoble beast? A fallen angel or an ascending devil? His followers, regarding him with admiration and dismay, puzzle over his nature. This entertaining but rather peculiar movie asks extraordinary questions, and I wish it were better equipped to give the answers. In the end, it gives show-business answers – partial answers – and from an odd angle.
Mike Nichols and his longtime collaborator, Elaine May, adapted Joe Klein’s novel, and the movie, like the book, begins with the “meaningful handshake” – the grip firm and confiding, and reinforced by a second hand on the recipient’s biceps or shoulder. Was there ever such a handshake? It offers more than a mere greeting; it confirms, reassures, consecrates. In New Hampshire, back there in 1992, Bill Clinton – or Jack Stanton, as Klein calls him – is campaigning for the Democratic nomination, laying his meaty digits into the palms of strangers. As the camera stays close to these epic salutations, a question comes to mind with painful intensity: Does he really care about these people – that is, care more than any other politician seeking votes? Is he simply faking? Or is Stanton’s moral nature something fearfully complex, a fathomless mystery in which he acts the role of empathy and concern so superbly that he becomes the thing he wills, much like a cynical grandstanding preacher who whips himself into belief in God? In such a case, sincerity is no longer a matter of honesty; sincerity gets dissolved and reconfigured by will. But a will as strong as that propels us into alarming moral turf, for such a man might act dishonorably with a serene sense of his own innocence. If you then judged him as a liar, you would have to deal with his bafflement. In his eyes, he has been betrayed by you.
And that is where we are now. Primary Colors was published two years ago, but this film adaptation leaps right into the current moment: The president, who is probably lying, feels righteous and angry, and the rest of us are left in the lurch, hoping to solve (i.e., live with) the conundrum of his character. Bill Clinton drives everyone a little crazy. His heart may be in the right place regarding such key issues as race, education, and jobs, yet his judgment is unspeakably bad in ways that hurt him (and us) again and again. Political columnist Joe Klein, himself an early Clinton fan, lost his faith, and by the time he wrote the book, he was split between outsize admiration and outsize disgust. Primary Colors is fueled by a sense of betrayal.
But using that sense of betrayal with dramatic intelligence isn’t so easy. Klein’s disillusion appears to have been displaced into the character of a rather bland African-American political operative – Henry Burton, the grandson of a civil-rights leader. Burton, who joins Stanton’s campaign, is forever worrying about the governor’s honor. He narrates both the book and the movie, and he’s mostly a blank, a character created in order to be disappointed. Adrian Lester, the young British actor who plays him, has a puzzled, indecisive air – but how could it be any different? He’s playing a device, not a man of shrewd or interesting judgment. After all, what intelligent campaign operative – or journalist – could be surprised to discover that politicians lie in order to get elected, that they ruthlessly suppress their past indiscretions? One can be disappointed to find out such things about one’s hero – that’s only natural – but is there any point in overvaluing one’s innocence? What matters in Macbeth is not what some minor character thinks of the general. What matters is what we think. One of the oddities of Primary Colors is that Stanton-Clinton gets lost in his own movie, shunted aside by the agonized scruples of his followers.
The filmmakers, following Klein, portray the president-to-be and his circle as foul-mouthed and sexually active. Sitting there, we cannot help thinking, “This crew will soon take over the country.” The thought will shock those who want to be shocked – the Republicans, perhaps, and the umbrageous Maureen Dowd, and also, one imagines, ABC News, which, in an awesome accession of self-importance, has recently been preparing the president, as far as anyone can see, not merely for an impeachment hearing but for an encounter with Jehovah himself. The movie will provide evidence (of an ambiguous nature) for those who want to think the worst of the Clintons.
The candidate and his wife, Susan (Emma Thompson) – the Hillary figure – are not exactly cooing lovebirds, though they hang together in the nest. Their relationship is scandalously funny, at times pathetic, at times noble. She calls him a “faithless bastard” and whacks him on the head with a heavy set of keys, and he responds by smiling, shrugging off her blows and accusations, and easing her back into the thing she’s so very good at, managing his career. They can sustain this odd Punching-bag-and-Judy act because they need each other; together, they are winners.
Thompson doesn’t imitate Hillary Clinton; she talks in her own style, ironic and precise, sometimes with great warmth, at other times coldly, with severe anger. Physically, she’s hard and linear, while Travolta is all rolling ease, his body swiveling, rocking – he seems to carry ball bearings in every joint. Travolta has certainly got the manner down pat: He thrusts out his jaw and jiggles his head slightly as he speaks; he ambles and shuffles, throwing his arms bearishly around the shoulders of anyone in sight. Travolta is good, but he’s like a stage actor in a preview performance. He hasn’t taken easy command of the role yet; he hasn’t harmonized all the imitative tricks so they seem like the natural manner of a real person. You can always see him acting; the performance is a little clownish and awkward, though it has some wonderful moments – the way he flies into infantile rages when thwarted in some petty way, yet smiles placidly when seriously attacked, refusing to fall into obvious anger. Stanton is a man who understands what American people want: They don’t want rancor; they want good humor.
Billy Bob Thornton is entertaining as Richard Jemmons, the James Carville stand-in (though no performer could approach the sheer bravura of Carville himself – the swamp rat with a snake’s tongue); Kathy Bates, as the Betsey Wright figure Libby Holden, storms into the movie braying “I’m heeere!” and never stops swinging. Bates is like a pile driver with superb timing; she’s mesmerizing. It’s Libby’s job to cover the governor’s tracks (one gets the impression she’s kicked a ton of dirt), and she talks tough to him, utterly unafraid, a mama who washes the soiled underclothes and has long lost her tolerance of niceties.
These people are always “on,” and they curse a blue streak. Is the portrait accurate? Primary Colors offers a show-business view of politics, which is no surprise. Forty years ago, Mike Nichols and Elaine May set up shop as observers and satirists. Brilliant before a live audience, they transformed little behavioral quirks and anxieties into first-rate cabaret theater. When Nichols turned to directing movies, he stayed on the surface, observing and re-creating behavior, devoting himself, often with great skill, to attitude, manners, style. The best scenes in his first film, The Graduate, played like sophisticated nightclub skits, and in the recent The Birdcage, the comedy was noisy and broad, like something in a superb sitcom.
So Nichols and May turn this group of ambitious pols into a jolly gang of hipsters, and though I enjoyed all the smart talk and profane irreverence, I didn’t take the picture all that seriously. That is, I took it not as reality but as an entertaining convention, a movieish fantasy of what political life is like – quarrelsome, colorful as hell, unburdened by drudgery and nagging detail. It is certainly a performer’s view of running a campaign; it offers personality as performance.
Since the movie is often funny and loose-limbed – a series of riffs – it seems odd, a bit like dirty pool, when it suddenly turns very serious indeed, and even tragic. The question is posed: Will the Stantons use some vicious material against an opponent in the race, a southern governor with a nasty secret (the governor is played by Larry Hagman with tender dignity). In its overwrought emotionalism, the violent reaction of Stanton’s staff to this decision seems to me extreme and dramatically naïve. It goes beyond saying, “Jack Stanton is smart, he cares, he wants to deliver, and it’s sickening how amoral and undisciplined he is.” No, the movie suddenly seems to hold Stanton responsible for honor itself. If he fails in honor, the light goes out of life.
The trouble is, the filmmakers haven’t created a rich enough portrait of the president-to-be; they haven’t shown enough of his talent to warrant this anguish over its betrayal. We see his empathy, his political adroitness, but we don’t see any of the famous intellect, the command of detail and policy that everyone says is so impressive. Nichols may have miscalculated. You can’t entertain an audience with the slobbiness of the future leader – a man who’s the life of the barbecue – and then complain bitterly that he isn’t a figure of probity. Primary Colors leaves an uneasy feeling in its wake – not only about the president but about the ability of the movies to handle the moral issues he has so persistently aroused.