Primary Colors occupies a strange place in the canon of American movies about politics. It was a not-so-popular movie based on an extremely popular novel, even though it was mostly faithful to the novel, and was also really, really good.
This is mostly due to the timing of its release: Primary Colors came out in March of 1998 — 25 years ago this month — and also right in the middle of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. The movie flopped, it’s widely believed because no one was quite in the mood to see a movie about the same thing that they could watch on cable news for free every night.
This is a shame because it was so timely: Primary Colors, more than probably any work of fiction, captured the contradiction at the heart of who Bill Clinton was: A once-in-a-lifetime skilled politician, who was also at best an out-of-control horndog and at worst an actual sexual predator (the film establishes the fictional Jack Stanton, at the very least, as a statutory rapist). And it was the same qualities, namely his ability to charm people, that fed into both.
That was, alas, not the sort of contradiction that the voters of 1998, whatever their political views, were in the mood to pay at the multiplex to explore. But it still has resonance today — and not only for Democrats. When believing Republicans are torn between the principles they hold, and the need to support a disgusting and dishonorable villain like Donald Trump, they’re in the same unlikely position as the Democrats in Primary Colors.
The Primary Colors book, published in 1996, was a roman à clef about the 1992 Democratic primary season, at first published anonymously, which led to constant speculation in the media about who wrote it (journalist Joe Klein eventually came forward as the author, even after denying it for months). The book was a lightly fictionalized blow-by-blow of the real ’92 campaign, recreating such moments as Clinton’s former mistress coming forward, Mario Cuomo flirting with a presidential run, and an 11th-hour challenger jumping into the race. There’s even a minor character based on Andrew Cuomo, whose own political career would end in harassment-based ignominy a quarter-century later.
Made by the heavy-hitter duo of director Mike Nichols and writer Elaine May, who had reunited two years earlier for The Birdcage, the Primary Colors movie has a unique ear for the day-to-day rhythms of politics. And it approaches it with a cynical eye, very different from the idealism that The West Wing would apply when it debuted a year later. Despite flopping, the film’s reputation has improved over time.
One of Kathy Bates’ Best
It also assembled a super-qualified cast: John Travolta and Emma Thompson as the Bill and Hillary stand-ins, Billy Bob Thornton as the James Carville cut-out, Kathy Bates as the fictional version of operative Betsey Wright, and Larry Hagman as the last-minute candidate who was like a more earnest Ross Perot.
Aside from Misery, this might be Bates’ best-ever work, as something of the conscience of the film. The kind who waves a gun and threatens to castrate rivals, but the conscience nonetheless.
Adrian Lester played the film’s protagonist and audience surrogate Henry Burton, the grandson of a civil rights giant who struggles to reconcile his principles with the chaos all around him.
The film is full of great and memorable scenes. But it never feels like the sort of hacky “ripped from the headlines” stuff that’s the lifeblood of too much political satire these days. A lot of it still resonates today, but other things date the film quite a bit.
A character (Billy Bob Thornton’s political adviser character) whips his dick out in the middle of the office in the middle of the day, and he doesn’t get fired. He does get yelled at by his boss, but then he calls the guy yelling at him an “elitist,” tells him he’s not really Black, and he keeps his job. It’s acknowledged that this was wrong (“haven’t you ever heard of Anita Hill?”) but the movie treats it like a colorful character detail, whereas a fictional character doing that today would likely (rightly) be treated like a sex offender. I don’t know that James Carville ever did anything like this in real life, although during that campaign he was courting his future wife (Mary Matalin) who worked for the opposing campaign.
The film ends with the Henry character telling Jack Stanton he’s quitting the campaign, and Jack trying to talk him out of it. The book left this ambiguous, but the movie shows Henry at the inauguration, showing the choice he, and his party, agreed to make.
Primary Colors is available on all VOD platforms.