Is this what the founding fathers had in mind? God help us...
Thursday, March 26, 1998
There is, however, a new teaching tool available that cleverly and concisely illuminates the political order in all its unctuous grandeur. It is Mike Nichols'' new film, Primary Colors, a funny, fly-on-the-wall look at what it takes to become president. This film, despite its flaws, should be required viewing for every student of American government.
When then Newsweek reporter Joe Klein published Primary Colors, the book, in 1996 under the name "Anonymous," it created a sensation in political circles through its seemingly first-hand insights into the 1992 Clinton campaign. Though a work of fiction, it depicted an ambitious Southern governor with a wandering eye--and did so with a level of detail that shocked Clinton insiders, even though many had obviously worked with Klein on the book.
The screen adaptation of Primary Colors by Elaine May remains remarkably true to Klein''s--and Clinton''s--story. Gov. Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a smart, Southern bullshit artist is, to say the least, a long-shot candidate for president, but this does not dissuade him, his equally ambitious wife Susan (Emma Thompson), and their coterie of eccentric supporters to give up their quest. On the contrary, through dogged persistence they wade through the chaos of the primary and of their outlandish personal lives, miraculously dodging the slings and arrows of outrageous political slime.
It is that slimy chaos that makes this story so interesting. The Stantons'' unprincipled opportunism is contrasted against the integrity and idealism of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a young campaign worker who in Klein''s book, was modeled on George Stephanopolous. As the campaign progresses, we see Henry''s idealism melt away when confronted with scandal after scandal.
Lying somewhere between the Stantons and Henry is Libby Holden (Kathy Bates, who steals the show with a wonderful performance), a gun-toting, lesbian political operative patterned after Clinton advisor Betsey Wright. Libby, despite her world-weariness, is a true believer in the Stantons and in the system. She possesses an innocence that she, unlike Henry, refuses to lose.
As Jack Stanton, Travolta gives a performance that seems fake and artificially sincere. He struggles with the Southern accent and seems almost cartoonish when he tries to "feel your pain" out on the campaign trail. But whether intentional or not, this performance works, if for no other reason than because Clinton himself is also fake and artificially sincere. As annoying as Travolta is on-screen, he is certainly no more so than the real thing.
In the Hillary role, Thompson is right on the money, crafting a strong, believable performance. The one drawback is her garbled Midwestern accent that is stuck somewhere mid-Atlantic, an abrasive cacophony of English boarding school inflections and hard Chicago vowels.
The performances, however, play second fiddle to the story itself. We see in vivid detail the jaundiced, bastardized process by which Americans choose their leaders. When faced with the betrayal of all his dreams for making a difference, young Henry realizes that he doesn''t like himself or what he is doing. He went into the campaign with a Civics 101 outlook, full of waving flags and lofty democratic ideals, only to find moral decay. Despite this, he stays. His corruption, like that of the process itself, is complete.
Primary Colors goes a long way toward explaining the Clintons'' current tribulations. For those of us outside the beltway--we who have only Civics 101 as a roadmap--the savage treatment of the Clintons by the Republicans and their whorehouse of attack bimbos is a nauseating spectacle that somehow doesn''t fit neatly into our city-on-the-hill mythology.
But truth be told, we are probably the only ones who truly find this mess disturbing. As Primary Colors shows, for those inside the beltway, this is just business as usual, the ugly reality of how American democracy works.