Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 1998
Directed by
Mike Nichols
143 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars

Primary Colours

This fictionalized account of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign with John Travolta standing in for Clinton as Governor Jack Stanton and Emma Thompson as his wife, Susan, is damning in its content, painting a picture of moral hypocrisy that would come to a head the very year of the film's release in with “Zippergate” when the by-then President Clinton was caught pants down with a White House aide, Monica Lewinsky.

Surprisingly the film is also a curiously flat affair that keeps its material at arm’s length.  Perhaps this is due to the fact that Elaine May’s script is, apparently, a soft-pedalling, near-comedic version of the novel on which it was based (written by Joe Klein but here credited to "Anonymous") although if so you’d wonder why a director of Nichol’s calibre (amongst his better films are Silkwood 1983) and Carnal Knowledge (1971) would have been willing to turn in such an underwhelming effort.  Particularly for non-American viewers who, bar the obvious similarities to the Clintons,will be unable to draw any real-life resemblances, the film stands or falls as fictional drama.

To this point, whilst Thompson is an odd cholce to play the wife, both she and a bulked-up Travolta are convincing in the leads, he all Southern hail-fellow-well-met charm, she a repressed, ambitious manipulator worthy of one of Shakespeare’s political plays. On the Stanton team, Kathy Bates stands out as a no-nonsense bull dyke as does Billy Bob Thornton (who like Travolta appears to have been dining on a fatted calf) as a profoundly cynical spin doctor. The rest of the cast are unremarkable including, unfortunatley, Adrian Lester as Stanton’s a black campaign manager, Henry Burton, from whose point of view we witness proceedings

The curious thing about the film is that whilst the focus is on Stanton’s self-destructive inability to keep his pecker in his pants it only deals with the mechanics of hosing down the potential for self-immolation not with its effect on the main players. Dramatically this is so both for Stanton, who appears to lie with complete lack of conscience and, even more incongruously, for his wife whose response, bar an initial spontaneous slap seems to be to lock-down in denial.  There is one scene in which she comes to confront Henry over an allegation that Stanton got their black baby-sitter pregnant but it is effectively swept under the rug. Whilst Henry is given some kind of moral quagmire to wade through he does so with little effort (indeed. as easily as he changes girlfriends, black for white).  

It may be that this is true to life, the Clintons, after all, got to the White House and it makes for a sobering account of real life politics American style, but as a film it comes across as an under-cooked but over-packaged drama.

FYI: A more effectively satirical take on American style media manipulation and political skulduggery Barry Levinson's Wag The Dog (1998) came out the following year




Want something different?

random vintage best worst