Primary Colors: All the Governor’s Men

HOW MUCH SPIN DOES IT TAKE TO WIN?

In 1996, the novel ”Primary Colors” was published, a roman à clef depicting then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, with a Southern governor called Jack Stanton standing in for Clinton. The author was anonymous, but considering the insight into the campaign it had to be someone… interesting. Eventually it turned out to be a journalist called Joe Klein who had been covering Clinton’s campaign. I used to read his column in TIME Magazine that he wrote for well over a decade, and I appreciated his defense of what he called a ”radical middle-of-the-road” approach to politics, which is what Clinton fought for as well.

But Klein was never naive, and this film adaptation echoes the darker aspects of Clinton’s political life. It is certainly relevant today.

Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is trying to win the Democratic nomination for president, and campaign newcomer Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is impressed with the man’s ability to connect with regular voters. Stanton has a firm grasp of policy without ever coming across as phony or boring. Henry is the grandson of a civil rights icon (of which he’s often reminded) and is initially skeptical of whether Stanton understands how to reach out to black voters. That does not turn out to be a problem for the campaign. However, the charismatic governor has a history of inappropriate relationships with women, which is a constant headache for his wife Susan (Emma Thompson).

When scandal threatens to derail everything, the campaign turns to the tough but mentally unstable investigator Libby Holden (Kathy Bates)…

Borrowing style and voice from Clinton
Director Mike Nichols hired his trusted comedy partner Elaine May to adapt Klein’s novel. Their last collaboration, The birdcage (1996), was unremarkable but funny, and she makes sure that Primary Colors gets more than a laugh or two. Most of it is provided by Bates as the fiercely aggressive, foul-mouthed operator, but it’s also fun to see Billy Bob Thornton’s version of the ”Ragin’ Cajun”, James Carville. Travolta as Stanton takes some getting used to. It’s obvious that he borrowed the style and voice from Clinton, which initially makes him look like a simple imitation. But he grows into the part and gives Stanton life, mirroring everything we love and hate about the 42nd president. Thompson is not an equally obvious version of Hillary, but nevertheless reminds us of her.

The two stars are very good as the ambitious couple who are desperately trying to bury everything that’s negative and damaging about their personal lives in order to reach the place where they can change the country for better… but are they willing to pay the ultimate prize, and how has the years changed them since they were in Henry Burton’s place, wide-eyed and idealistic? It comes as no surprise that the Stantons (and Henry) will be severely tested, but how it happens becomes an engaging drama that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It certainly did back in 1998 at the time of the film’s release, as the country had to endure the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Lester is good as our representative in the movie and Nichols elegantly and credibly takes us deep into the campaign.

Watching Primary Colors twenty years later is interesting because we’re still grappling with Bill Clinton’s legacy as president. The fall of 2017 will be remembered for its many examples of talented men who fell from grace because of how despicably they behaved in private with women. The film illustrates how frustrating it is to see someone worthy of admiration turn out to be so… cheap. It’s a palpable feeling of sadness. 

Primary Colors 1998-U.S. 143 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Mike Nichols. Screenplay: Elaine May. Novel: Joe Klein. Cast: John Travolta (Jack Stanton), Emma Thompson (Susan Stanton), Kathy Bates (Libby Holden), Adrian Lester (Henry Burton), Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierney… Larry Hagman, Diane Ladd, Rob Reiner, Bonnie Bartlett, Tony Shalhoub, Allison Janney.

Trivia: Tom Hanks and Mel Gibson were allegedly considered as the governor.

Quote: “He’s poked his pecker in some sorry trash bins.” (Bates on Travolta)

BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay.

Last word: “Before we started work on ‘Primary Colors’, I was extremely interested by perhaps one aspect of ‘The War Room’ which was, especially in the case of George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, the nature of their concentration. They actually forgot their physical selves as evidenced in how they dressed. Their concentration and their… joy in the absorption is what helped me understand what I said to Elaine May and what I said to the actors as we started: One of the secrets of this movie is that it’s really ‘Seinfeld’. It’s about friendship. It’s about things that happen to friends on the road which is about the time of your life. That’s really the happiest time of your life when you look back. You just don’t know it when you’re in the middle of it.” (Nichols, Film Scouts)

 

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