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IN SHORT: Surprise! It's real good.
To be absolutely honest with y'all, I am so sick to death of Bill Clinton and the media feeding frenzy surrounding him that I honestly did not want to see Primary Colors, the film based on the novel fabricated from political journalist Joe Klein's observations of Bill Clinton on the campaign trail. As always, Cranky makes no comparison with the Source Material (the paperback of which is sitting right over there on the coffee table).
What director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May have managed to produce is a remarkably entertaining political fiction that's close enough to the media reported "truth" to make the jokes even funnier. They, and actor John Travolta as Bill Clinton look and sound alike Presidential candidate Jack Stanton, do the even more remarkable. They make the story not about the real Bill Clinton. The fictional Governor Stanton, and the entire campaign process take on its own storyline, and it is a fascinating thing to watch unfold. So let's ignore reality and not call Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson) the Hillary Clinton character and Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) the James Carville character.
Primary Colors is guided by Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) a black campaign manager who falls under the spell of the smooth talking Southern Governor who eats too much and cheats on his wife, but manages to create intensely personal relationships with all the people he meets. It's almost as if the politician Stanton really did listen to and care about the voting electorate. Of course, no one in the political world knows who this guy is, so he's ripe for dirty tricks to knock him out of the campaign. Candidate Stanton won't go negative, but his wife will OK bringing in an investigator to check out their campaign; to dig up the dirt before the other side does. Enter Libby (Kathy Bates) as hard-assed a bull dyke ex-looney as you could get. Bates burns up the screen with her performance, with the potential for a second mental breakdown always waiting in the wings.
Henry Burton's purpose is to bring us across the paths of all the crackers who would make the governor King, er, President. The sad part about it all is that none of these folk have lives outside of the campaign. It's an incestuous little band that believes that doing the right thing means looking the other way when the smelly stuff rears its ugly head. By splitting what have been real life accusations into fictional faults divided between political contenders, Primary Colors manages the task of distancing itself from political reality, and enters the realm of good storytelling. That's what movies are supposed to be, right? Good stories.
That's what Primary Colors delivers. Lots of good stories.
Travolta offers us a character who's personable and, for the most part sympathetic; who only hints at political intelligence and savvy. Those traits are found in his wife, who is the power and force behind all things. Emma Thompson's character is wrapped up so tight, you can almost see the cracks in the stressed out armor. There is no question that her character is bound heart and soul with the Governor; that too many years and too much work has happened to let the final chance for the political golden ring get by. Thompson's emotional range and choices are spectacular and a perfect complement to Travolta. And Primary Colors only gets better. . .
As the campaign moves from state to state, Nichols populates his screen with a variety of colorful characters another ex-Governor (Larry Hagman) who may just be the most pure and pure-natured political animal around (until his dirt is uncovered); the radio DJ (Rob Reiner) more interested in which Las Vegas entertainers the candidates mother's prefer; the bull dyke dirty operative (Kathy Bates) who's been looney before and may go that route by the time the end credits roll. That's just the tip of the iceberg of numerous small roles, all cast with known stars of screen and TV (Robert Klein, Diane Ladd, Geraldo Rivera, Larry King, Charlie Rose and so forth)
Nichols and May are not afraid to let the camera do the talking. Jokes are passed on solely through reaction shots and glances to the side. There's a well staged recreation of [Edward Hopper's] "Nighthawks at the Diner" painting, set in a Krispy Kreme doughnut franchise. There's also what I call the film's version of "Clarissa Explains it All" in which those of us who don't work in the political world have everything we've just seen rationalized for us. The net result is that many of the characters we've watched for two hours make major shifts in direction.
Some may say the film is making apologies and explanations for the real life President. Some may say that the shifts in character are completely unrealistic. But everyone will talk on the way out of the theater, which is the sign of a film that makes an impact. At minimum, you'll be talking about terrific performances by Bates, Travolta and Thompson.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Primary Colors, he would have paid . . .
I knocked it down from a straight seven 'cuz, running two hours ten (by my watch) it drags a bit setting up the finale.
[And in keeping with the sexual tensions and occasional harassment inherent in the story, and in real life, Cranky would like to point out that Emma Thompson just gets more and more attractive with each role she does. «sigh»]
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