Mike Nichols, the man behind “The Graduate”, is back in business with a film with a lot of buzz around it. Based on Joe Klein’s best-seller of the same name, the film follows a flawed yet gifted politician from the South who must duck constant attack from the media about his private life during his presidential campaign. Mmm. And the filmmakers say it ain’t based on reality. Nooooo, that wouldn’t be a barely disguised depiction of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, right (wink, wink)? But then again, who cares about how close it is or ain’t to the real deal. What’s for sure is that this is an insightful, thought-provoking take on American politics in the age of the always watchful eye of the Big Brotherish media. The film asks if it matters if a man’s got a questionable personal life if he’s good at his job, and God knows this is a relevant question. Though the film relates events years before l’affaire Lewinsky, there are still many scenes which mirror real events affecting our President. Just look at the scene when an affair with a big-haired woman is revealed and the Prez and his wife go on national TV to reassure the population: anyone who saw the Bill & Hillary bit on 60 minutes will recognize the dialogue and the mannerisms.
Because by the way, this film sticks very close to reality, visually at least. John Travolta delivers an amazingly close-to-truth performance as Jack Stanton/Clinton, and he sports the same gray hair, uses similar body language and talk with the same very Southern speech. Then there’s the constant munching and the inevitable love handles. On a further level, Travolta captures what makes Clinton so charismatic: the way he balances strong leadership, sincere identification with the everyman and naughty-man-you-love-to-hate charm. Susan Stanton/Hillary is played by Emma Thompson. She nails perfectly the First Lady’s subdued cool and undying confidence in her man under the spotlight, but what’s a real hoot is to see her losing it behind closed doors; don’t we all wish to see Hillary crack her shell and react energetically to her hubby’s womanizing?
Then there’s the bunch of political advisors who try to keep the Governor on track. The film is mostly seen through the eyes of one of them, Henry (Adrian Lester), an idealist young Black who still has faith in the US of A. He falls under Stanton/Clinton’s charm and, trusting that he found man who actually care more about the people than personal success, he helps him with his campaign. The film sets a dilemma: is winning worth playing dirty, or should you be fairplay even if it might cost you the victory? Henry loses his illusions and understands that politics really are a game, and not a pretty one. It’s every man for himself, and no prisoners are taken; you gotta go for the throat. The media plays a big part in all of this by making public every declaration and every scandal almost instantly. To face these attacks, politicians hire spin doctors to keep their image respectable. Billy Bob Thornton plays one of them, a cynical, disillusioned, no bullshit type of guy who knows that this ain’t the place to take it easy. Kathy Bates’ character on the other hand still has values, and if she’ll cut corners to save Stanton’s reputation, she won’t get dirty and attack the opponent just to get ahead in the polls.
“Primary Colors” is an unusual film. It’s paced like a comedy, but it’s more about the way American politics work. Nichols’ an achieved filmmaker, but here, he can just let the material flow. For example, he doesn’t feel the need to judge the President. The film shows that he’s an intelligent, good natured man who just likes women a bit too much, and who gets caught in the craziness of politics and sometimes loses his focus. Does that make him a bad guy? That’s for the viewer to decide. This is definitively a film to see. It makes you think, but it’s also great entertainment thanks to very strong performances and Travolta’s killer Clinton impersonation.