Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hail to the Chief

Film: Primary Colors
Format: Streaming video from Hoopla Digital on The Nook.

There are a good number of political dramas on the various Oscars lists that I’m watching. I don’t generally seek them out, but Primary Colors is one that I actually saw in the theater. I remember it; my wife was about five months pregnant with our first daughter and I was pretty much willing to do anything to keep her happy. This is the first I’ve seen it in 17 years, and yet I remember specific things about the film. That bodes either good or ill, depending.

Fortunately, it bodes pretty well. I remembered Primary Colors favorably, and I liked it on this watch, too. This is more or less the story of the governor of an unnamed small Southern state running for president in the 1990s. The governor, Jack Stanton (John Travolta) seems to connect well with the general population. His wife Susan (Emma Thompson) is emotionally damaged but tough. He appears honest, caring, and forthright. He’s also an inveterate womanizer with scandals bubbling up, allegations of drug use, and was a draft dodger during the Vietnam War. In other words, this is more or less the story of the first Clinton campaign without it being specifically called that overtly.

The film is told from the point of view of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), an idealistic politico who is more or less strong-armed into working for the Stanton campaign. He goes for a meeting and it’s suddenly assumed that he’s coming on board. This causes an immediate rift between him and his sort-of girlfriend March (Rebecca Walker), but very quickly Henry becomes a true believer in Jack Stanton despite the man’s slim chances at the nomination and increasingly seedy past.

Along the way we get quite a cast of characters. Ruthless, womanizing strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) swears continually but knows what he’s talking about. Media specialist Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) seems like as much of a true believer as Henry, but also seems much more quickly jaded. Howard Ferguson (Paul Guilfoyle) is Jack Stanton’s jack-of-all-trades, willing and able to do anything that needs to be done to keep the campaign going. Finally, Libby Holden (Kathy Bates, who was nominated for a supporting role) is a long-time friend of the Stantons, a former resident of an asylum, and an expert and cleaning the dirt from Jack Stanton’s past.

Primary Colors follows the campaign through a series of ups and downs, and despite the growing success of the Stanton campaign, it feels more and more like a series of downs. What starts as a cheap storefront with staffers completely out of their depths soon becomes a solid operation, but rather than focusing on the rising polls and Stanton’s increasing popularity in the polls and with the voters, we instead get the scandals and the panics and upcoming political hit jobs before and as they happen.

Anyone who cares about the political process will find a great deal here to interest him or her. There’s a feeling that Primary Colors, while certainly fictionalized a great deal with many of the events that happen, has a definite ring of truth. Politics is an ugly and sordid business, something we all know at least in the back of our minds. We’re so used to the media presence of the political system and so ready to believe or disbelieve what we’re told that the film feels almost natural, like the real behind-the-scenes look at the campaign trail and the constant crisis mode that must come with it.

The casting here is exceptional. John Travolta is completely believable as a Bill Clinton stand in and even keeps a consistent accent through the film. Emma Thompson is as good as she ever is, and Billy Bob Thornton is a likeable shit throughout. Kathy Bates, who has a couple of truly brilliant scenes, is the real standout. So too is Adrian Lester, who surprisingly hasn’t had much of a film career, opting for the stage instead. He’s immediately likeable, though, someone with whom it is easy to immediately identify. He’s honest and decent, and while we may want to like Jack Stanton or some of the other characters, it’s Henry who we actually do like.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Larry Hagman who shows up in the last hour of the film as a straight-talking former Florida governor named Fred Picker. Hagman is great casting as well. He actually looks presidential and plays the role with a quiet dignity. The solid casting really continues through the whole film—people like Tony Shaloub, Robert Klein, and Rob Reiner show up for a couple of minutes here and there, and we get cameos from Charlie Rose, Larry King, and Geraldo Rivera as themselves.

I don’t think Primary Colors is the kind of film I would want to watch too often, but it’s one that’s worth revisiting now and then, particularly as the political process that will overwhelm the country in the next 18 months starts gearing up now. This is a better film than it’s remembered for being, if it’s remembered at all. That it’s been this forgotten is sort of a shame.

Why to watch Primary Colors: It feels like the real thing.
Why not to watch: Like laws and sausages, it’s better not to see how presidents are made.


  1. I remember liking the movie and thinking it was a decent adaptation of Joe Klein's book. I, too, saw it in the theaters, and while I'm now fuzzy on the plot details (for both the book and the movie), I do remember being impressed by the acting. I recall that the book stirred up some controversy; do you really think the movie's been forgotten?

    Regarding Adrian Lester: I've long had a sneaking suspicion that Dulé Hill, on "The West Wing," was something of a Lester surrogate, although I don't think "The West Wing" focused on Hill as its main point-of-view character. I never watched more than half an episode of "The West Wing," but I did watch "Psych" faithfully for several seasons before I moved back to Korea, and I thought Hill was a hilarious foil for James Roday. It was while watching "Psych" that I discovered that Hill was also a shockingly good tap dancer, too. I wonder whether Adrian Lester has Hill's various talents.

    1. My impression is that Adrian Lester has focused a lot more on his career on stage rather than in front of the screen. For what it's worth, I like Dule Hill on camera. LIke Lester, he's someone who is immediately likeable regardless of what he's doing.

      I don't "know" that Primary Colors has been forgotten, but I do have that suspicion. It's a movie that I never hear anyone talk about. I think it's better than that.