Journalist Joe Klein’s Primary Colors was one of the most interesting and popular political fiction novels of the 20th Century, most likely because much of it was not fiction at all. By changing a couple of names and narrative details, Klein wrote a roman-à-clef that tells the story behind Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, cataloging how the scandal-plagued governor of a Southern state beat the odds to become President of the United States.
Revisiting a film so steeped in its time and then-current events is usually fascinating, and Primary Colors is no different. Given some of the tabloid headlines the current White House is facing, its message may actually be more resonant now than at any other time since its release.
The plot follows the made-up protagonist Henry Burton as he works for the charismatic Governor Jack Stanton’s campaign for President. Stanton is a charismatic idealist, and it is clear that all of those in his inner circle are fiercely loyal and convinced that he will be the one to get the country back on the right path. We follow Stanton and his campaign as he visits with youths and provides them with inspiring stories of working hard to get ahead, and see him commiserate with the family members mourning the loss of a loved one. To Henry, this is the reason he believes in Stanton, at least until the flaws become too obvious to ignore.
John Travolta plays Stanton by playing Bill Clinton, erasing all doubt about the project being entirely fiction. While his impression here is actually decent, he sometimes lets it get in the way of nuanced film acting. Emma Thompson, on the other hand, dominates the film as Susan Stanton, opting to forego a Hillary impersonation and instead just embody her trademark characteristics of control and a desire to counter-punch. She is portrayed as the strategic one, making the campaign’s bold decisions and dragging Jack across the finish the line.
When two alleged affairs and a possible illegitimate child come to light, panic starts to engulf the campaign team. In her reaction to the news, Thompson’s Susan is crushed, but determined to keep the campaign going. It is in her scenes grappling with this that Thompson perhaps does more to humanise Hillary Clinton than either of her election campaigns ever did, basing her determination not in a lust for power but in unshakable faith in her husband’s potential. At least at first.
To get the campaign on track, Susan calls in her friend Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) to do opposition research. She eventually uncovers a former cocaine addiction and homosexual affair in the past of Stanton’s chief rival, but begs for the campaign not to use it. When it becomes clear that Susan and Jack are going to go ahead with it, she takes her own life, devastated to see how her friends’ faith in a higher calling have morphed into a hunger for power that undermines the very reasons they thought would make Jack a worthy President.
Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May were smart enough with this film to recognise that the problems and lessons from Klein’s book were broader than just Clinton but instead endemic to the modern-day democracies. Henry is originally taken in by Stanton’s cult of personality, forgetting that Stanton is as complicated and fallible as anyone else. Anyone following democratic politics over the past two decades will see that this mindset has only become more prevalent among the masses, with both the Obama and Trump campaigns riding waves of support that had less to do with policy than the men themselves.
The difference of course is that Henry’s proximity to the candidate made it much easier for him to see the flaws that are usually revealed to the public only after the election is over. So the movie poses this question: how do we deal with the moral shortcomings of our leaders. By the end of the film, it is clear that Henry is no closer to an answer than we are today, as he shakes Stanton’s hand at the inaugural ball with a look that conveys his doubts and discomfort at what happened on the campaign trail.
Primary Colors remains thoroughly entertaining and fascinating today not only for its look at a major historical figure, but for its questions that we continue to grapple with.It remains one of the best and most relevant films of the 90s, and deserves much more discussion given today’s political landscape.