The magic of history in the making.
Perhaps you’ve experienced that sense of destiny on a smaller scale, say, planning a trip. It starts as a crazy idea. Finally you say it out loud. Someone else says how it might be accomplished and before you know it, you’re actually doing it. That feeling (but on a grander scale) is what Mike Nichols was able to capture so well on film.
John Travolta plays “a southern governor,” we’ll call him Jack Stanton, seeking his party’s nomination. Though Jack is the center of the political dream, the story’s center is Henry (Adrian Lester). Henry agrees to a short meeting with Stanton’s people to see about working for the campaign. Before he can officially agree to take the job, he finds himself whisked to another state, adopted by the Stanton handlers, and assigned some of the larger tasks involved in the campaign. Two days later he is able to change his clothes.
When he takes time to think about it, Henry decides he’s glad to be a part of this historic campaign. He can feel the history in the making. Everyone in Stanton’s camp is vibrant, idealistic, energetic, and dedicated to the goal of getting Stanton nominated.
Henry has always admired the baby boomers because they had someone on whom they could hang their idealism — John F. Kennedy. And while Stanton is no Kennedy, he is as close to it as Henry will find in his generation. His idealism is illustrated in the film when he and the other staffers react to Jack cheating on his wife. They are annoyed, but their political idealism remains intact, and Jack is forgiven. It is only when Jack and his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) conspire to commit political dirty tricks that his followers become disillusioned.
Primary Colors is a great ensemble movie. All the roles are important, and with only one notable exception (Rebecca Walker as March, Henry’s girlfriend), the performances are very good. Travolta’s Jack is always eating yet he seems to float above all the other characters. He’s the actor in a daytime drama; he does very little of the work, but it couldn’t happen without his presence and charisma. Lester’s Henry is a levelheaded newcomer who can’t believe the lack of structure in the Stanton camp. The momentum of the campaign is too strong to harness, but Henry keeps trying. And Kathy Bates turns in an Oscar-deserving performance as the neurotic friend of the Stantons hired to find the skeletons in Jack’s closet. Everyone else contributes their part to the confusing bustle of the Stanton hive.
Travolta and Thompson present an uncanny Bill and Hillary, and it’s often hard to remember that this is a work of fiction. When an unusual development turns up on Larry King’s talk show, I found myself saying “I don’t remember that happening.” That’s because it never happened. The parallels between life and the movie are so strong that you might find yourself with some false memories, like I nearly did.
The film is surprisingly well directed. I say this because I never felt the presence of the director. Contrast this film with something of Steven Speilberg’s. Spielberg leaves his mark as the godlike narrator of the story. He winks at the audience through some clever arrangement of the camera. In Primary Colors, the characters drive the story without any apparent interference from Nichols. And with so many characters going in so many different directions, it had to be one of the more challenging directing jobs of the year.