Primary Colors (1998)
“Primary Colors” has the perfect ending — by which I mean this 1996 drama embraces the imperfection, disappointment and disillusionment inherent in the American political structure.
The film directed by Hollywood legend Mike Nichols and written by Elaine May from the roman à clef novel by “Anonymous” — later revealed to be then-Newsweek, now-Time magazine columnist Joe Klein — follows a familiar pattern for this type of political story. A young, smart protagonist gets caught up in the rise and/or fall of a deeply flawed but charismatic politician, and the True Believer gradually turns into a jaded cynic.
“All the King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren more or less set the standard for the modern political novel and has twice been made into movies (unsatisfactorily so on both occasions, IMHO).
“Primary Colors” didn’t break any new ground, but it covered familiar territory with a terrific slate of performances and whip-smart dialogue. This film earned a couple of Oscar nominations — for May’s script and Kathy Bates’ amazing, frenetic turn as an unhinged political operator — but its reputation did not outlive its notoriety as a thinly-veiled portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton circa the 1992 presidential election.
That’s a shame; seen again nearly a decade-and-a-half later, I’d call it a top-shelf political drama.
The thing I most liked about it was that the movie didn’t shirk from its central message. These stories always reach a breaking point where the young turk confronts the older, idolized politician about their misdeeds. Inevitably, the main character rejects their mentor, deciding that it’s better to be a loser with dignity than a winner who’s swallowed all his principles for a chance to grab the brass ring and do some good.
Except Henry Burton, the idealistic young campaign manager played by Adrian Lester, doesn’t turn away.
The final sequence shows Henry on the receiving end of a full-press charm offensive from Jack Stanton, the Bill Clinton stand-in memorably played by John Travolta, to stay with him and see him through into the White House. The movie transitions to Stanton and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) dancing at their inauguration party. Stanton is shown shaking hands with the people who helped elect him — including Henry, before panning away to a majestic shot of a huge American flag.
Some have interpreted this ending to be more ambiguous — that it’s left unclear whether Henry is just there congratulating the new president or did indeed stay on the campaign despite his moral crisis. I don’t think so. Henry is shown smiling enthusiastically while he’s shaking Stanton’s hand, which contrasts sharply with the hard, noncommittal expression he had shown him a moment earlier.
Henry caved. He stayed in the fight because he wanted to win it.
Why do I think so? Because the young man had expressly said so himself. The grandson of a legendary civil rights fighter, Henry is sick of always being the ideological purist whose candidate never wins.
Even more important than Stanton’s schmoozing of Henry, the key exchange of the film comes more than an hour earlier. Henry is confronted by his estranged girlfriend, March, who, as a reporter from the “Black Advocate,” peppers Stanton with some uncomfortable questions about using influence to get his arrest at the 1968 Democratic Convention expunged.
March: “That’s the kind of man you want to work for, somebody who just wants to get elected?”
Henry: “No, I want to work for a man who fights the really good fight, and then watch a Republican get elected.”
March: “What’s the difference? Can you tell?!?”
March: “Yes! I can tell the difference between a man who believes what I believe and lies about it to get elected and a man who, well, who just doesn’t give a fuck! I’ll take the liar.”
This demonstrates with stark clarity that Henry is not a wide-eyed naïf wearing rose-colored glasses. He is fully aware of Stanton’s flaws — that he’s a serial womanizer, that he’ll lie through his teeth if it helps him get ahead in the polls, that he is both cursed and blessed with an almost pathological need to be liked.
But Henry is still entranced by the notion of someone who shares his progressive political ideals and actually has a shot of getting into office to act upon them. He’s willing to accept a mountain of dirt to reach the pinnacle of power.
I think perhaps the reason “Primary Colors” didn’t have staying power is that it was such a product of its time.
Klein drew barely concealed sketches of real-life political players and personalities, leaving no doubt who was standing in for who when it came to the film version — Billy Bob Thornton as high-strung redneck campaign manager Richard Jemmons, aka James Carville; Emma Thompson as the ambitious political wife who resents subsisting in her husband’s shadow, a la Hillary Clinton; Caroline Aaron as domineering Clinton “Friend of Hillary” Susan Thomases, and so forth.
And, of course, Travolta was doing a spot-on impersonation of Bill Clinton, right down to the roly-poly physique and salt-and-pepper pompadour. He nails Clinton’s obsequious speech patterns, the way he piles on the sugary Southern accent and makes everyone in the room feel like he’s talking directly to them.
So audiences saw all this and regarded it, perhaps not incorrectly at the time, as “the Clinton movie.”
With the passing of years and some distance, though, the film takes on its own character and weight, like a bottle of wine that seemed bitter when it was bottled and has only grown richer with time.
It’s notable that the one important character without a direct correlation to real life is also the most interesting and pivotal. Kathy Bates’ Libby Holden, the Stanton’s longtime friend and self-described “dust buster,” doesn’t even show up until nearly an hour into the film. Her job is to put down any dirt about Jack Stanton that crops up, as harshly as possible.
In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Libby holds a gun to the privates of a sleazy attorney who has fabricated a recording of Stanton speaking to a woman claiming to be his mistress. It’s a blowsy, chaotic, terrifically funny scene, though completely ludicrous.
A proud, loud lesbian woman, Libby shows up in Stanton’s down-home campaign headquarters, wearing a Stetson hat and throwing the f-word around liberally among the genteel Southern ladies. She perches herself in Henry’s office and surveys the roomful of campaign workers through the window, selecting a comely young gal with a pixie haircut to be her personal assistant, and lover — as if the latter were automatically part of the job description of the former.
The trashy Jemmons, who had earlier and spectacularly unsuccessfully tried to pick up the same girl, at least had the decency to make a personal (if unappealing) appeal.
Libby just sort of blows into the movie like an Arkansas twister, wrecking things left and right and sucking up all the air wherever she goes. In her own caustic way, she’s every bit as engaging a figure as Stanton himself.
She ends up making the choice that Henry couldn’t and taking it a step further — sacrificing herself to save both Stanton’s political viability and her own blazing sense of right and wrong, carefully though she does conceal it.
And we mustn’t forget that Libby, as we are reminded several times, has been in and out of mental institutions. I think “Primary Colors” says something by having the character who’d been in the loony bin be the one who chooses the path of righteous indignation.
The non-crazies usually end up living with the grubby compromises.