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Clinton Without Contrasts

Primary Colors gets the libido, misses the idealism

And yet for this movie to really work as something more than a sly spree, the governor, for all his messing around, also has to seem heroic to us. We need to be mesmerized right along with Henry, and we're not. And I think that's because Nichols is such a slick cynic that he can't portray a world in which goodness really shines. The rubes in this movie remain rubes. At a Stanton Thanksgiving party at the governor's mansion, we see his cracker buddies swarming the vast lawn, and the sight is not pretty. Later, when Henry watches Stanton on television in a diner crowded with regular folks, the patrons seem stunted, unwashed. Nichols has made a movie about a politician with the common touch, but he himself lacks it. Primary Colors looks like a movie about bleeding-heart liberals made by a Republican fat cat.

If Stanton were a real spellbinder, we might feel more conflicted about his transgressions. If we could see more evidence of his good works, then his bad works might not seem so prominent. But most of the time he's just being a pol -- putting on a yarmulke to get the Jewish vote in Florida, getting all teary-eyed and sincere in his televised primary debates, and so on. When Henry's radical journalist girlfriend (Rebecca Walker) tells him Stanton is just a "cracker who hasn't done piss-ass for the black man in his own state," there's no evidence she's far wrong. (The film never explores a great subject: the ways in which blacks allow themselves to be manipulated by white politicians.) When Stanton delivers a eulogy near the end for a fallen comrade -- whose fall he precipitated -- Nichols barely shows us the oration. We don't get to see how Stanton pulls genuine feeling from his own hypocrisy. And if we don't see this sort of thing, then what is there about this character to make us woozy? He's a spellbinder without a spell. Even the "common" touches surrounding Stanton come across as gross. When we see him with his face stuffed with doughnuts or his fingers sticky with ribs, he's not a down-home man of the people, he's just a big bubba.

I don't think this is the way Stanton was meant to come across, but Nichols's elitism probably got the better of him. He can't connect to the life force in all that grossness. Stanton doesn't even have much of a family context; his young son pops up briefly, and also his mother (Diane Ladd), but they have almost no emotional weight. His wife, Susan, is the film's only family-style triumph, and that's mostly because Emma Thompson is expert at showing how this politician's wife balances pragmatism with rage. She's a sharpie who knows the score about her husband's philandering but also recognizes the reason to stay in the game. She can deliver a stinging slap to Stanton in full view of Henry but -- and here's what makes Thompson's performance special -- she also shows us how this woman can still remain in thrall to him.

There are other expert performances, including Larry Hagman's Governor Picker, who gives Stanton a dose of his own "common touch" medicine; and Billy Bob Thornton's Richard Jemmons, Stanton's political adviser who fulfills the description Klein gave him in the novel: "He looked like he was sired during the love scene in Deliverance."

But Nichols never brings all these actors together into any kind of coherent social vision. Primary Colors lacks the buzz and crackle of observed experience; you never feel like you've been plunged into the workings of a real campaign. It's a sham movie about a sham world.

Primary Colors.
Rated R.
Directed by Mike Nichols. With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates and Adrian Lester.

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