Primary Colors

Video Reviews

Primary Colors

D: Mike Nichols (1998); with John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Adrian Lester, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, Diane Ladd. I was talking politics with a bunch of filmmakers recently when one grandly stated, "That's why Primary Colors is the best political film ever." I gave a start; I thought it was supposed to be fluff. After viewing the movie, I would clarify it as the best "contemporary" political film. The definition of political, in this case, is limited to mean films about the electoral process and the powers thereby wielded. Most political films celebrate either heroes or villains, with an emphasis on the latter. Almost all concern the political process' corrupting effect on individuals -- from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent to The Candidate and Bulworth. The amazing conceit of Primary Colors is that corruption, being at the heart of the American political process, is a given rather than a disease. The always surprisingly detached, if not quite amoral, view of director Mike Nichols finds some of its finest moments here adapting Joe Klein's anonymous bestseller Primary Colors. With its beautiful marriage of material and tone -- the exuberant amorality of Carnal Knowledge combined with the two-fisted advocacy of Silkwood into an almost celebratory compassion -- this film loves politics and politicians. Travolta in the lead is amazing; he manages to humanize Bill Clinton while losing none of the pure sleaziness. I'm not sure how I feel about Thompson's take on Hillary (and let's dispense with the notion this is a work of constructed fiction); it's almost too earnest. There is precious little cynicism or self-awareness, but that may be just right. Many future viewings of this film will help clarify that. The rest of the cast is terrific, with Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates standing out. The relish with which this film embraces the political process -- not simply warts and all, but warts above all -- is astonishing. Given the current political race, its portrait of the real life of American politics is revealing.

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