On Primary Colors

“Come back, Shane! Run for president!” 

Bill Clinton would have made a terrific Roman emperor. His personal shortcomings (gluttony and lust) would have been minor blemishes, expected really, and his intelligence and genuine desire to do good would have had the chance to flourish. As it is, the need to compromise for political reasons (the fury with which his opponents attacked him fueled in no small part by their disbelief that the American public simply didn’t care that he lied about sex) severely blunted any positive effect he may have had and the generational hope of his presidency ended up mired in half measures.

Of course, this only makes him a perfect avatar of the Baby Boom generation, colossally self-obsessed and self-mythologizing, with little of substance to back it up (the flip side is his successor, the only other Boomer president, driven by self-righteousness to countless national disasters).

Mike Nichols’s film is much funnier than it should be, considering its basis in a novel by a political reporter, thanks largely to Elaine May’s script (if she and Stanley Donen actually get that rumored film in motion, I hope Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates are around to deliver her lines). Nichols direction is crisp and a bit blunt, the camera tracing circles around the actors in moments of moral entrapment, a long slow zoom into Edward Hopper’s Krispy Kreme, but for the most part the emphasis is on performance and dialogue. The film when received was largely criticized for sagging a bit towards the end, as it becomes less about the mechanics of a political campaign and more a rumination on a moral dilemma. On the contrary, this transformation might be its greatest strength, if it isn’t quite as fun as Billy Bob unleashing his python.

Just how far are we willing to compromise with our votes, how much are we willing to forgive? Audience avatar Henry Burton (played by Adrien Lester, the only no name in the cast (at least by Hollywood standards, he’s a British theatre and TV star), in a role that probably should have been Don Cheadle’s), a young operative notably a generation younger than the Clintons, says early in the film that he’d rather support a man who believes the same things he does but lies about it to get elected than a man who is honest and ineffectual. The second half of the film puts that cynical theory to the test.

By making candidate Jack Stanton’s crimes much worse than anything Bill Clinton has been accused of, the film is working out the logical conclusions of the beliefs that must have been uttered by Clinton’s staffers and supporters during his campaign and presidency. It’s a divergence from historical record only in fact, not in theory, a reducto ad absurdum of Clinton’s lusts and evasions. It complicates the film’s relation to history, so thinly veiled at times (Thornton’s James Carville, Emma Thompson’s Hillary Clinton stand out in particular, but also Kathy Bates’s conflation of Betsey Wright and Vincent Foster), but ultimately this is not a docudrama of historical recreation (like Oliver Stone’s W. or the Jay Roach/Danny Strong HBO movies Recount and Game Change, let alone a fantasy of a Hawksian White House as in its most direct descendant, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing). It turns instead into something far more ambitious: a meditation on generational compromise, on how the idealism of the 60s died in the 90s, pinning the blame not on a vast right wing conspiracy, but on the old hippies themselves.

It ends with Burton refusing to compromise any further. Deciding that large scale, national politics is too inevitably corrupt for him, he resolves to work small, to become a community organizer. Another generation’s ideal of hope.

2 thoughts on “On Primary Colors

  1. I'd totally forgotten that Burton ends up leaving politics to become a community organizer. Interesting connection to our current president! It's been a while since I've seen Primary Colors, but I do remember being disappointed with the final act. It did add an interesting emotional component to Stanton's crimes when everything went bad, though it felt like a jarring shift after the first hour or so. Still, it's an interesting film that got a bit lost with its connections to Bill Clinton at the time.


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