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PRIMARY COLORS

by: Scott Renshaw

Just so there's no confusion: Jack Stanton (John Travolta), the "fictional" scandal-plagued Democratic Presidential candidate whose campaign is the subject of Primary Colors, is Bill Clinton. His ambitious wife Susan (Emma Thompson) is Hillary. Stanton's drawling campaign strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) is James Carville. The waffling, never-seen Italian-American governor of New York, called Orlando Ozio in the film, is Mario Cuomo. And for that matter, the "Anonymous" author of the best-selling novel on which Primary Colors is based is actually former "Newsweek" writer Joe Klein.

It's ironic that Klein could tell a story about what scandal-mongering has done to the American political process only by creating a bit of scandal himself, that he could uncover a few brutal truths only by hiding a few. It's even more ironic that the film version of Primary Colors appears just as the President finds himself entangled in new scandals, virtually guaranteeing that most coverage of the film will both miss the point entirely and help make the film's point for it. Primary Colors isn't simply a chance to giggle at Clinton's foibles without ever naming him. This is a story about giggling at foibles masquerading as news, about a political process which has been reduced to a seemingly endless cycle of mud-slinging and spin control because we continue to create an audience for it.

In that sense it's a very similar story to the recent Wag the Dog, though simultaneously more human and more cynical. Primary Colors unfolds through the eyes of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), an up-and-coming campaign strategist desperately seeking a candidate worthy of his idealism. Burton begins to develop what Jemmons refers to as "True Believer-ism" as Stanton's campaign progresses, convinced that this is a candidate with vision and a genuine desire to help others. As revelation builds upon revelation, however, the questions he has to ask himself grow ever more troubling. Does it matter that this man who wants to do so much for others is also a compulsive womanizer? Do the ends of getting into office where you can do some good justify the means of slinging even more mud at the opponent than he slings at you? And how do you make ideas worth anything in a culture where viewers watch an interview with the Stantons and can only comment that Susan "should wear her hair longer?"

Primary Colors the movie manages to wrap all of the novel's tough questions and román-a-clef characters into a surprisingly funny and entertaining package. Though the running time of nearly two and a half hours feels excessive near the end, director Mike Nichols crafts so many sharp comic scenes that the film never feels like a tedious political science lecture. He also gets one particularly dynamic performance from a generally solid cast - Kathy Bates as Libby, the Stantons' borderline-loony long-time friend and the campaign's designated "Dust-Buster" (because she's "tougher than dirt"). Though the role initially seems like a minor variation on Bates' brassy, no-nonsense characters in Dolores Claiborne, The Late Shift or Titanic, Libby eventually develops into the real soul of Primary Colors: the last living idealist, a woman whose very sanity depends on the notion that there has to be a better way to select those who will lead us.

Of course, another performance which will draw far more attention, which is precisely why Primary Colors couldn't possibly work as well on film as it does on the page. Without a face, Jack Stanton is a complex and sympathetic political character study. The moment John Travolta appears on screen with his salt-and-pepper pompadour, the titters begin; the moment he opens his mouth and begins his sandpaper drawl of a Clinton impression, the full-fledged laughs begin. As effect

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