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Mike Nichols’ much-anticipated take on Joe Klein’s roman à# clef about the 1992 presidential campaign has been getting a free ride from the start. Because the story’s characters are thinly disguised depictions of the main players in that year’s engaging Democratic roller-coaster ride to the White House, most of the appeal for the audience lies in holding up the outline of history we’re stuck with against the vivid 3-D of this fiction and admiring the overlap. Not only does this exercise make the least attentive news consumer feel in-the-know, it raises the question no one likes to ask (although Klein, in his grating coyness, has naively indicated an affirmative): Would this story be as much fun if it really were about a totally fictional would-be president and his primary travails?
But incompetence itself is sometimes revealing, and as one of Hollywood’s sturdiest incompetents, Nichols has helplessly demonstrated that if audiences couldn’t plug in the real players’ names and dredge up half-remembered campaign-trail anecdotes for comparison, Primary Colors would be just another All the King’s Men with modern trappings. That said, All the King’s Men is the apotheosis of its kind, and Hollywood isn’t wrong to make and remake itit seems to renew hope and idealism within the movie business, even if it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference in politics.
So Nichols has worked with what Klein has given him: a funny, scabrous, zinging first half that descends into a swampy melodramatic mess so preachy it makes you feel guilty for enjoying what has come before. But where the literary transition was painless and rather smooth, the arc of the story onscreen is broken and unredeemable. One reason why the All the King’s Men template is the one they keep hammering movies out of is its poised viewpoint: Structurally, political betrayals of innocence happen to the character situated midway between the audience and the insiders. Nichols’ ham-handed direction and inability to turn the camera off once a scene has ended place all the loss and treachery on our laps, souring the party. Henry Burton’s the one who’s supposed to suffer; we’re just there to lick our chops over the pity of it all.
Henry (Adrian Lester) is the grandson of a slain civil rights leader and therefore a minor plum for the nascent campaign of Southern Democratic governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson). The Stantons recruit him in their own style, using a combination of charm, urgency, and a breezy assumption of fait accompli. Henry finds himself “aboard” without having had time to pack or finish arguing with his activist girlfriend, although they do have half of a delicious fight about what it means for Henry to leave the services of a black lawmaker who is respected but ultimately impotent.
Like all budding Fausts, Henry leaves open a chink for the devil by showing his greedin this case, do-gooding ideological greed. He wants tangible, not token, results from his next employers, and he sees the golden couple with the warm manner and steely adherence to liberal principles as the safest deposit box for his soul. A nice goal, and one white liberals can easily identify with, but Henry’s girlfriend just glares at him through her glasses. “Come work at the Black Advocate,” she says grimly. “We’re never disillusioned.”
Klein was on to some complicated ideas about white versus black goals of progress in mainstream government and the possibility that to effect real change any political participant must hop on the biggestwhich almost invariably means whitestbandwagon that strays not too uncomfortably far from its stated ideals. But whereas Klein threw away his hero’s race on the Stantons’ expedient use of civil rights symbology and one hysterical scene in which Henry meets one of those ’60s leftovers (the mother of his new, Stanton-era white girlfriend, Daisy) who insists she has “a black soul,” Nichols sees Henry’s level of sellout as existing at a higher stratum of the political food chain. Not: You can’t enact civil rights goals working for the Man, however ostensibly liberal, but: You can’t work for a presidential hopeful, period, because by the time a politician gets to the point where running for president is a plausibility, he has already left behind him an unacceptable trail of blood, slime, and compromise.
So there’s nowhere to go but down once Henry signs on, but he can’t help himselfthe Stantons are too magical, and Jack in particular is too charismatic to resist. Henry watches in awe as Jack listens to the participants of an inner-city adult literacy program tell their stories, then counters with one of his own. Even through his tears, Henry suspects that Jack’s illiterate “Uncle Charlie” is a fake, but complicity is assumed on both his part and ours; swept into the momentum of the early part of the campaign, the film, like Henry, becomes giddy as it finds a brisk, efficient, and loose-limbed rhythm.
The film glows right from the start, muddling together all the delights of the silly season it depicts and making it unclear what exactly everyone is in this thing for. Is it the speed, the tension, the sacrifice of on-the-run food and utilitarian hotel rooms, the electricity that crackles among smart people figuring something out fast, the desire to see and touch and help fellow Americans? Nichols makes all these things look as appealing to us as they are to Henry, who is new to the fast pace and high stakes of a presidential primary. Henry is privy to Jack’s highs and lows from the start; he watches with the same admixture of gall and admiration as Jack unself-consciously parades his casual sexual conquests in front of his campaign workers or charms his wife out of a well-deserved snit.
Young British actor Lester inhabits Henry effortlessly; he has the stiff, slightly dorky way of speaking befitting an ambitious, not heretofore naive (considering his circumstances) black political idealist who has had to keep a stiffer upper lip than his white counterparts to make it half as far. He has no trouble with falling into bed with Daisy (Maura Tierney, also eerily perfect for the role of campaign media adviser); like cops, who see themselves as colorless (or, rather, blue), the campaigners are red, white, and blue, a breed unto themselves of underrested, poorly fed, overcaffeinated young hotshots out to make history.
Nor does Henry think it’s worth answering strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) when he gives his own demented “black soul” rant, culminating in the claim “I’ve got some slave in me. I can feel it.” The crew has been prepared for Jemmons with little explanation: He’s a psycho and possibly a genius, or at least a psycho who had a recent hit so big his psychosis is irrelevant. Thornton’s lurid redneck characters are drawn with such distractingly broad strokes they tend to obscure the subtlety and intelligence of his performances; wags have noted that James Carville could have played his colorful self just as well, but he’s actually too showy to tease out the history that Thornton does in his brief time onscreen. You don’t forget, watching him, that Carville wasn’t a success until he was 40; just watch Thornton sidle awkwardly across the dance floor, good-old-boy bluster on hold, as the Stantons (who’ve been irradiated with promise since earliest youth) boogie away unaffectedly.
Primary Colors’ first half is filled with such gemlike moments and long stretches of momentum-powered delights. Smart touches gleam in every corner: Thompson’s reading of the line “No, no. How else would I learn?” when the slick son of the New York governor visits Jack for some negotiating and asks if she minds the boys talking business; the sexual pairing off among the campaigners that coincides with the first serious bimbo eruption; the Krispy Kreme shack that becomes Jack’s hangout, shot in a green and orange glow that none-too-subtly evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks diner, the doughnut stand of the American soul.
But it doesn’t last, and it doesn’t devolvethe fun, electricity, and comradely banter stall out with a thud. When the bimbo, Cashmere McLeod, erupts, the Stantons call in their “dustbuster,” Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), a big, brassy, keenly intelligent true believer who sweeps up behind the golden couple when it’s not glitter but “situations” they’re trailing. Until then, Nichols’ idiotic sentimentality hasn’t been soggy enough to sink the good stuff, but thereafter the camera lingers far past its welcome on every scene, and the mournful tracking shots imply a lot more love for the characters they follow than we actually feel. Nichols’ direction is clunky in large groupsyou can see every actor waiting for his cueand the complete loss of humor throughout the film’s second half argues that only giddiness and cynicism have any flair; you can’t be idealistic, funny, and fast all at the same time.
So Primary Colors descends into a painfully slow melodrama of lost ideals. But the script gets as misty as the speeches once the spark of naiveté goes out. Libby makes a welcome Calvinist-American anti-idol worship point about how it wasn’t the media jackals who destroyed the Stantons’ capacity to do good without wreaking hidden havoc but the cossetting of their own supporters. This would be true if the Stantons really seemed to be protected from any of their damage, or if the disastrous New Hampshire primary really seemed to be a disaster. But movie inevitability is a much surer thing than political history-making, a process that Jack and Susan repeatedly insist they are engaging in, and all the travails in Primary Colors never look like more trouble than hitching a bumpy but sure-thing ride to the White House.CP