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Week 42: Primary Colors

primary colors stanton

"I wondered how it would be to work with
someone who actually cared about the nation.
It couldn't always have been the way it is now.

It must have been different in my grandfather's time.
You were there. You had Kennedy. I didn't.
I've never heard a president say "destiny" and "sacrifice"
without thinking, "bullshit."
Okay, maybe it was bullshit with Kennedy, too. but. . .
but people believed it. I guess, that's what I want.
I want to believe it.

I want to be part of something that's history."

Mike Nichols' Primary Colors is the finest movie I have seen about the political process in America. One minute you are watching the picture with tears in your eyes due to laughter and the next with sadness. It is sort of profound in its frankness, performing an astonishing balancing act between political disenchantment and idealism. This is a wonderful picture.

The story is told through the eyes of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a activist that unwillingly becomes swept into a Democratic primary campaign for the Presidency in support of an affable, womanizing and loud mouthed southern governor named Jack Stanton (John Travolta). Jack and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) don't take Henry under their wing as much as they force him to be there. Henry has barely even made up his mind regarding whether or not he even wants to support the campaign before he is having 4am coffee with Susan three states away. Like the campaign itself, the picture moves at a breakneck pace. We follow Henry, the Stanton's, and the rest of the team throughout their journeys on the campaign trail.

Due time in the picture is spent developing the wonderful ensemble cast that establish the Stanton team. There is Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thorton), a deranged yet brilliant political strategist that is just as good at positioning spin as he is whipping out his penis to an unsuspecting campaign worker. Daisy (Maura Tierney) is a sweet aid that seems to legitimately care about Henry and the campaign while also fulfilling the need of obligatory love interest. Finally, there is Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), a mentally unstable investigator that will do anything she can to help the Stanton campaign cover up their own scandalous pasts while also finding the dirt on their opponents.

The Stanton’s themselves are something of a miracle. It would be easy to make both Jack and Susan caricatures. Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May make them complex, living, breathing, flawed human beings. Jack is nothing short of a man whore (his indiscretions play key roles in the film) but is also an amazing politician. We know when he is lying, and bullshitting, and manipulating-- but we also sense that he is a good man that cares for the people. There is a miraculous scene in the middle of the film where Stanton has small talk with a disabled worker in a donut shop. In this scene it is clear that Jack's desire to lead comes not from a ruthless pursuit of power- but through empathy and compassion. He may not be able to keep his dick in his pants, but he is deep down a good guy.

Susan is even more complex. She is aware of Jack's sexual deviance, but supports him nonetheless. She is a loyal wife, loving her husband and standing by his side even when she has no reason to. It is never made clear whether Susan is putting up with Jack because of the presidency or because she loves him, but we are strongly convinced it is both.

Primary Colors
is a very funny movie- one of my favorite comedies.  The dialogue is fresh and some of the situations (including a “Mamathon” in the deep south) have me in tears regardless of how many times I have seen them. What is particularly impressive is the range of comedy that is demonstrated in the picture. Some characters, such as Stanton are funny based on their cariactures, while others are funny in the way in which they consistantly play it straight. Some of the laughs stem from satire, such as a scene in which we realize that Stanton has lied about an imaginary illiterate uncle just to bang a inner city educator. Other moments are almost screwball in nature.. I can't watch the scene where Jack gets so upset that he throws his cell phone out the window of a moving vehicle without grinning like an idiot. The laughs are part of the genius of the film- the comedy being so effective forces the drama of the film’s second half to have more consequence. This makes perfect sense. After all, is their really a better way to make a connection with another human being than to share a laugh with them?

That is not to say that Primary Colors is simply a barrel of laughs. This is a picture that poses some profound moral questions about the nature of character. For example, is it moral to completely smear a man’s reputation and destroy his life simply to win a political contest? Should infidelity behind closed doors dictate changes in public policy? When does spin go too far? These are all questions that have been posed time and again in recent years.  Nearly 15 years later the issues in this film still have resonance today- perhaps more than ever.

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Primary Colors
is Mike Nichols best film- yes, even better than The Graduate- because it never loses sight of the humanity of its characters. Every individual in the ensemble is fully realized and complex.  The performances are phenomenal. Both Emma Thompson and Kathy Bates were worthy of Academy Awards in 1998. We don’t always like the people we are watching but we feel like we may understand them and their motivations. I think it says something about the picture’s power when I say that even after watching all of the horrible things Stanton is caught doing in his personal life—I would still vote for him.

I went the entire review without mentioning that this film was written by Joe Klien based on his experiences on the campaign trail with Bill Clinton. I didn't point out that Travolta's Stanton is blatantly an impersonation of Clinton, or that Emma Thompson's Susan is Hillary. Billy Bob Thorton's Richard Jemmons is a riff on James Carville, Clinton's political strategist. Of course the film is based on Clinton- you just have to look at the Stanton's to realize this. However, Primary Colors is more drama than satire. A film is what it shows on the screen and nothing more. This movie works just as well without the impersonations. That's one of the wonderful things about it. We get so wrapped up in the story that we stop caring about the historical basis of the script.

There is a moment in the picture in which Jemmons accuses Henry of having TB. No, this is not tuberculosis. It stands for true-believer-ism: that unyielding carte blanche support and idealism towards a particular candidate perhaps we have all felt from time to time. We all want to believe the best in our candidates… we want them to be infallible. They aren’t. They are human beings. It becomes easy to become jaded in politics. It becomes simple to lose hope, throw up our hands and stop believing. Primary Colors works so well because it acknowledges why we are jaded yet asks us to have some hope anyway. I am moved by Stanton’s last words in the film:

“You don’t think
Lincoln was a whore before he was President?
He had to tell his stories and smile his back country grin.
He lied just like I do. He did it so one day he could have the opportunity
to stand before our nation and appeal to our better nature.
That’s when the bullshit stops.”


I believe in our better nature. I have no fantasies of perfection or rose colored lenses. I look at our candidates and know they are men, fighting desperately to leave their mark on history. Our future as a country relies with our ability to passionately defend our beliefs. We may stumble and fall. We are not perfect but without our convictions we cease to leave our mark. This passion defines our legacies. Our lives are nothing more than a brief snapshot in the pages of history—yet we can matter.  We cannot allow ourselves to become victims of the political machine. It may be flawed and at times appear to be broken—but it is all we have. Primary Colors shows us that it is not ever really "about" the candidates that are running. It is about what they represent. I suppose you could say because of these beliefs I suffer from "true-believerism", much like Libby and Henry do in the picture. I don't think I so. I know the realities of where we are as a country. I just choose not to accept them. I want to believe we can do better.  An election is coming up. I will vote for the candidate I believe in, not because of the man that he is—but because his ideas are better.

Review and Analysis by Shaun Henisey



Primary Colors on Netflix

primary colors poster

Cast and Credits:
Henry Burton: Adrian Lester
Jack Stanton: John Travolta
Susan Stanton: Emma Thompson
Richard Jemmons: Billy Bob Thorton
Libby Holden: Kathy Bates

Universal Pictures presents A Mike Nichols film.
Based on the novel by Anonymous (later revealed to be Joe Klien) with a screenplay by Elaine May.

Running Time: 135 Minutes. Rated R for language and sexual situations.

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