Directed by the late, great Mike Nichols, Primary Colors is based on the novel of the same name and purports to provide a fictionalized behind-the-scenes account of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. John Travolta plays Jack Stanton, a Clinton-esque governor from an unnamed southern state. Emma Thompson plays Susan Stanton, his tough-as-nails wife, who is in many ways smarter and more qualified than her husband for the job of president.
I mention that last bit because Hillary Clinton (the basis for Susan Stanton) has just recently announced her second run for the Democratic presidential nomination. The last time she ran, I remember how many of the criticisms she faced during that campaign were explored nearly ten years earlier in this film while she was still First Lady. Again, the power in good satire is how it holds up a critical mirror to what we are and why we are that way.
As for the movie, one thing I've come to appreciate about it over the years whenever I re-watch it is how we aren't given easy answers about the Stantons. Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of the film that there are never any scenes of the Stantons alone interacting just with each other. Because, really, how could any film seek to understand what a political couple like the Stantons (or the Clintons for that matter) are truly like with each other? How does a wife deal with her husband's infidelities when seemingly larger issues are at stake? What compromises and concessions would the two have had to have made in order to get as far as they did together? Primary Colors implies these things are unknowable unless you are one of the people in the pairing.
What we do get is a glimpse of the effects such a couple has on the people around them. We are introduced to the Stantons through Henry Burton, an idealistic campaign manager and grandson of a Civil Rights leader, who has become disillusioned with his current political work. The Stantons recruit him for their campaign, and Henry begins an emotional tug-of-war of genuine admiration for the Stantons and disgust at the tactics they use to get ahead.
We also meet the strange, sometimes very eccentric staff with whom the Stantons surround themselves. One that stands out is Libby Holden, played with great energy by Kathy Bates. Libby is a staunch supporter of the Stantons and will go to extreme lengths to protect them. Like Henry, she idolizes the Stantons although she appears to be aware but less deterred by their flaws. After one heartbreaking revelation, Libby holds the Stantons accountable for the people they once were and still pretend to be. This scene provides Primary Colors with a rare moment of deep sincerity and pathos.
Also deserving mention is the performance of Larry Hagman as Fred Picker, a former governor who comes on the scene and steals attention and political mojo from Jack Stanton. His scenes provide an emotional weight to the movie and ask the question about what we have the right to expect out of our political leaders. Hagman is truly magnificent in this role, and I've always felt he (as well as the rest of the film) should have gotten more attention during the movie award season.
Be that as it may, the satire and political commentary of Primary Colors hold up nearly twenty years later. Next time you come across it and have an opportunity to watch it, give it a chance.