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Pesky Old Reality Intrudes On 'Primary Colors'

The movie is fun, but it's a tame period piece compared to today's headlines

By Craig Staats/AllPolitics

If... If... If...

Bill Clinton's world took an abrupt turn on Jan. 21, when Monica Lewinsky hit the headlines, beret and all.

Since then, events have rushed along at breakneck speed, with a parade of grand jury witnesses, news leaks, document dumps and now Kathleen Willey's "60 Minutes" interview and a White House counter-attack.

If none of this had happened, Mike Nichols' new movie, "Primary Colors," based on Joe Klein's thinly disguised story of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, might be more fun.

But the events of the past two months have outraced the movie, leaving behind a vaguely interesting period piece. It's not the rollicking, sharp-edged recollection of the '92 campaign that it could have been, and not as entertaining as Klein's book.

That said, there are some fine moments in the movie.

One is the opening scene at the adult literacy program, where candidate Jack Stanton's easy empathy with students leaves prospective campaign aide Henry Burton, played by Adrian Lester, more than impressed.

Another is the shot of Susan Stanton frostily pulling her hand away from her husband's as soon as the red light on the TV camera goes off during their "60 Minutes"-style interview, when he admits to causing tough times in his marriage.

And another is Stanton's speech to Portsmouth, N.H., shipyard workers, when he tells them their jobs are gone and are not coming back, but they can learn new skills to compete in a world economy.

It's that kind of scene that recalls the power candidate Clinton had, back in 1991 and 1992, to connect with people and make them believe he honestly cared about them.

Emma Thompson's Susan Stanton grows harder and harder through the film, rationalizing the compromises she and her raffish, faithless husband make in pursuit of their goal: winning the presidency.

Some of the characters seem caricatures, though. The first few scenes with Kathy Bates' character, Libby Holden, look like something from a slapdash, made-for-TV movie. It takes a while to suspend disbelief and think about the story and the people.

In a few months, maybe some enterprising theater chain will put together a good double bill, "Primary Colors" and "The War Room," the great 1993 documentary on the Clinton campaign by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.

Why mess with Billy Bob Thornton's fictional James Carville when you can watch the real Ragin' Cajun?

In evoking the sights and sounds of a political campaign, Nichols could have done a better job, too. The campaign rallies look too neat, too orderly and almost low budget. The movie needs more scenes like the New York City rally, when women wearing pig-noses hoot and jeer at the philandering Stanton, and the camera moves with Jack and Susan through the crush. Politics is a lot of things, but it's not neat or orderly.

"Primary Colors" is fun at times, but it's not what it could have been. We shouldn't entirely blame Nichols, John Travolta or anyone else connected with the project, though. Blame that pesky old reality for creeping in and raising, or maybe lowering, the bar for political satire.

In Other News

Monday March 23, 1998

Lewinsky Father: Executive Privilege Will Prolong Daughter's Suffering
State Sanctions Contribute To Dropping Welfare Rolls
Ex-Ron Brown Partner Claims Clintons Backed 'Sale' Of Trade Seats
Pesky Old Reality Intrudes On 'Primary Colors'
Jones Legal Team Says 'Sexual Aversion' Claim Not New

Most Americans Think Their Moral Standards Are Higher Than Clinton's

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