Choose Life

Primary Colors is a pale imitation of our great national soap opera.

Primary Colors
Directed by Mike Nichols
Universal Pictures

Mike Nichols’ movie of Primary Colors is the most massive cinematic harpoon ever buried in the flank of a sitting U.S. president. Even omitting some of the best-selling novel’s more scandalous episodes (such as the future first lady jumping into bed with the young narrator), the picture cheerfully out-leers, out-winks, and out-nudges the book by the notorious Anonymous, a k a Joe Klein, transforming the Clinton campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination into a bumptious clown show and the voters into gullible dummies. The film is an outrage all right, but not in the way that Nichols or Klein intended. The outrage is how smug and empty of insight it is, and how rhapsodic its reviews from people who ought to know better.

The novel may be fast, but it ain’t cheap. It’s actually a crackerjack piece of work, its first half sweeping you up in the momentum of a national campaign, its prose imparting a buzz. Then, as the sordidness and opportunism of the candidate and his wife become apparent, the writing turns somber and dirgelike and full of easy moralizing. Klein is never more penetrating than in the book’s first scene, in which the ingenuous black narrator, Henry Burton, marvels at the way in which the candidate, Jack Stanton, the governor of a small Southern state, listens intently to the members of an urban literacy group, grasps their hands, recounts the experiences of his own poor family, and leaves them feeling heard, understood, and moved. That Stanton ices his triumph by having sex with the librarian who runs the program is troublesome but almost fitting: The tryst is another kind of conquest, another way to make his audience feel special.

The weird thing about Stanton’s real-life counterpart is that when he speaks, even when I’m pretty sure he’s obfuscating, dissembling (OK, lying), I believe him. I believe that Bill Clinton is sincerely lying. I think that he has fully justified to himself what he’s saying, and his certainty radiates out and envelops his listeners. After the canned, B-movie sloganeering of Ronald Reagan and the slapstick linguistic pratfalls of the Hollow Man, George Bush, it was (and is) a thrill to watch a president who not only thinks magnificently on his feet but gets a near-sexual charge out of doing so. The man has amazing stature–more than any U.S. president of my lifetime. A master at projecting mastery, he’s even physically outsized, with a bulbous nose that’s like a touch of Dogpatch populism and a voice that rasps with conviction–that risks the shredding of its cords for the sake of moving its audience. Previous administrations have featured mostly faceless bureaucrats, but Clinton’s cast of characters is endlessly compelling. Even Kathleen Willey should get some kind of Emmy for the performance she gave on 60 Minutes: Whether or not she was telling the truth, she was quivering with pleasure at her own histrionics; that was acting, baby. What great drama!

It’s certainly more entertaining than anything in Primary Colors. In the film’s first scene, Nichols holds for a long time on a black man telling the sad story of his illiteracy–the director rubbing your face in the man’s nobility. But Stanton, played by John Travolta, barely listens, and when he speaks, Travolta telegraphs like crazy that Stanton doesn’t believe a word he’s saying. He and Nichols give the game away in the first 10 minutes, so it’s hard to understand the increasing disillusionment of Burton (Adrian Lester). Lester is a lean and well-spoken and handsome young actor, a convincing preppy. But he’s an unbelievable human being. Sprawled on his motel bed watching the end of Shane, he mutters, “Come back Shane, run for president,” and that’s the whole character: He’s always staring into the distance, scanning the horizon for a hero. That he believes even for a second in the movie’s Stanton makes him seem like an idiot.

Travolta is one of the most likable and instinctive actors in movies today, but no one who has met him would describe him as a “brain.” Not being an intellectual is not necessarily a hindrance to an actor, of course–unless the actor is playing an intellectual and needs to give a credible account of a person thinking. (Thinking in character is more difficult than it looks; Brando can do it better than anyone, which is why he’s fascinating in even his laziest performances.) As Stanton, Travolta furrows his brow, but he’s not thinking. He does a surprisingly skillful nightclub impersonation, but he doesn’t get this president, and Nichols isn’t the director to guide him. Before Clinton had even taken office, animator and cartoonist Mark Alan Stamaty dubbed the administration “Cram-a-lot,” and no phrase has ever caught as hilariously that combination of prodigious wonkishness and naked aspiration (and, arguably, zero inspiration). Clinton is a man who hungers for minutiae, who can toss off reams of data like some Star Trek techie officer and make it even more theatrically compelling. Travolta’s Stanton is just a double-talker. A 5-year-old could see through him.

Travolta doesn’t get Clinton’s famous temper tantrums, either. The one he throws is a hissy fit that’s so spurious he even loses his Arkansas accent–he turns into a Texan. And Travolta has no rapport with Emma Thompson. The actress begins disastrously, throwing her own tantrum on a New Hampshire runway. (Hillary Clinton plays her cards close to the vest; she might have a temper, but she would never carry on in public in front of perfect strangers.) The performance improves in its quieter passages, and at times Nichols seems to manifest a David Brockian sympathy for the woman, who is frequently caught between her husband’s unchecked libido and her own fierce ambition–between a boner and a hard place.

A s the James Carville figure, Billy Bob Thornton does his familiar rancid hick act. He’s fun to watch, but he’s not the performer Carville is–Carville, who comes through in the documentary The War Room as a titanic operator, a barker whose appetite for politics is mesmerizing to the point of messianism. Thornton never cuts loose, never runs away with the movie. But who could? There are no happy accidents in a Mike Nichols film–the man is too slick, too in control of what he does to let real life bleed through. There are a few great performances. Caroline Aaron’s vulgar Lucille Kaufman (modeled on Susan Thomases) is an astonishingly lived-in portrait, and fine, too, in lesser roles are Paul Guilfoyle, Tony Shalhoub, and the comedian Robert Klein. As the flawed, haunted governor who steps in to run against Stanton, Larry Hagman proves once more that he can be a preternaturally sensitive actor. And, as Libby Holden, the campaign’s self-proclaimed “dust buster,” the manic-depressive idealist who accepts as her mission the elimination of all dirt, Kathy Bates is a dyke tornado.

Marvelous as these actors are, they never transcend the limited conception of their roles. Nichols trashes them all–he’ll trash anyone–for cheap laughs. He has a nervous Jewish volunteer at campaign headquarters remove his yarmulke for the candidate’s wife, the way you’d take off your hat for a lady; it doesn’t matter to Nichols that no Jew would ever do something like that.

It’s hard for me fully to express how deeply rotten I think Primary Colors is. Adjectives like “glib,” “coarse,” and “sour” don’t fully do it. I found it so oppressively smug that I had to get up and pace the aisles three or four times, and I’d have bolted if I hadn’t been duty bound to stick it out. It’s hard to believe that this movie has received the press that it has–actually, not so hard if you know the way that Nichols has glad-handed journalists in positions of power. He’s positively Clintonesque in his attentions. “Opinion-makers” have been going to screenings for weeks. And Nichols ensured he’d be championed by the likes of Larry King and Charlie Rose by casting them both in the movie.

Primary Colors has already got rave reviews, and audiences could conceivably respond to it, too: They’ve been living with the Clinton saga for six years, and many people are legitimately hungering to see it dramatized–and to be told what to think about it all. Nichols is eager to tell you what to think. The least thoughtful people always are.