Primary Colors


Universal Studios

Directed by Mike Nichols

Produced by Mike Nichols, Jonathan Krane and Neil Machlis

Screenplay by Elaine May

Based on “Primary Colors” by Joe Klein

A lot of you reading this review won’t remember the controversy and hullabaloo when PRIMARY COLORS hit the screens back in ‘98. The book it’s based on was originally credited to “Anonymous” as it is in the movie’s credits.  Written by political journalist/columnist Joe Klein, the book and movie were both supposedly based on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. And after watching John Travolta and Billy Bob Thornton doing dead-bang near perfect impersonations of Bill Clinton and James Carville it’s hard to argue against that.  But even if you don’t know a dodgamn thing about Bill Clinton or his presidency, PRIMARY COLORS works as a spectacularly insightful political drama/satire/comedy on all levels due to the exceptionally strong work of the amazing cast. Sure, there are a few serious bumps along the way but on the whole, PRIMARY COLORS is a Must See Movie about American politics.

Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is the idealistic grandson of a 1960’s civil rights leader.  He’s involved in American politics in small ways until he’s practically kidnapped into the presidential campaign of Senator Jack Stanton (John Travolta).  Henry’s extremely reluctant to take the job of Campaign Manager until he sees Stanton interact with the public, especially at a meeting with the students of an adult illiteracy class where Stanton brings everybody to tears with the story of how his Uncle Charlie won the Congressional Medal of Honor but didn’t have the courage to admit he couldn’t read. Uncle Charlie will also be influential in other ways later on in the story I dare not reveal.

Henry is totally swept into the campaign by Stanton’s trusted circle: his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) Spokeswoman Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) and Howard Ferguson (Paul Guifoyle). And they hit the campaign trail which takes them all in directions none of them ever imagined a presidential campaign would take them. Mainly because Jack’s inability to keep it in his pants. One scandal piles on top of another as one of Jack’s mistresses comes forward with tapes of their romantic conversations. And if that wasn’t enough, one of Jack’s friends informs Henry that his 16 year old daughter is pregnant and claims Jack as the father.  To counter all this, Henry, Daisy and Richard bring in Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) to dig up the dirt on the Stantons and clean it up before it can be used against them. Libby has special qualifications for the job as she is a firm political ally of the Stantons and has known them since they were all radical college students.  But Libby suffers from the same disease as Henry. They both have what Richard calls “Terminal TB” They’re both True Believers in Jack Stanton and that belief may be more dangerous than anything else…

Believe it or not, despite my description, PRIMARY COLORS is actually very funny at times. And it worked for me because it made me feel as if I were really getting inside the heart of a political campaign and seeing how it operates.  I liked the scenes where it showed that while Jack Stanton is out shaking hands and kissing babies, it’s his staff that is actually making the pivotal decisions for his career. I liked the scenes where Richard walks into a room and immediately lies down on a bed or couch and fields questions from the other staff members and formulates strategy as if it’s something he was born to do.  I liked how Henry struggled to hold onto to his core values and principals even in the face of such blatant manipulation of public opinion and perception by not only his staff but everybody else involved in the presidential race.

Adrian Lester I knew from the British crime drama “Hustle” and was pleasantly surprised at seeing him in this movie. His British accent and manner slips through at times but he’s good at being our eyes and ears into the Stanton campaign. Maura Tierney is just as good as Daisy Green but then again, Maura Tierney is good in every role I’ve seen her play. Supposedly there was an interracial love subplot between Daisy and Henry that got cut and I can understand why. We see a couple of scenes with the characters together in bed and that’s all we really need to know because the real love affair these characters have is with politics and not each other.

And every time I see this movie I fall in love with Emma Thompson.  She’s simply amazing and totally into the role. I don’t think she’s going so much for a straight-up and down Hillary Clinton impersonation as she is trying to get us to understand the mindset and drive of women who link their destiny to that of men like Jack. The genius of the movie is that we never get a scene with Jack and Susan alone where we get to hear what they discuss in private, away from advisors and press and I like it that way.

But it’s John Travolta and Kathy Bates who clearly walk away with the movie.  As Jack Stanton, Travolta plays a man who is so full of charisma that people fall over themselves to just be in his presence. It’s a performance that just leaves me amazed every time I see it because Travolta does such a good job of disappearing inside of Jack Stanton. And he makes Jack Stanton his own character.  Sure, we see Bill Clinton in there because that’s who it’s supposed to be but Travolta puts spins on the character and I appreciate that he did so in order not to make Stanton a caricature.

And Kathy Bates as Libby is the soul and conscience of the Stantons.  She has a marvelous scene near the end of the movie where she shows Jack and Susan pictures of the three of them when they were young and idealistic and thought they could change the world. And then she begs them to make the right decision. They don’t.

So should you see PRIMARY COLORS? Absolutely yes. It’s a movie full of laughs but it’s also a movie full of seriousness. It feels honest and it feels real. It also feels joyous and sad. It gives hope and then takes it away.  I’m the first person to scoff at a movie that claims to be based on real people or events but somehow I got the sneaking suspicion that PRIMARY COLORS at times comes uncomfortably close to the truth of how politics in America really are.

143 minutes

Rated R

Game Change


HBO Films

Directed by Jay Roach

Produced by Tom Hanks and Gary Goeztman

Screenplay by Danny Strong

Based on “Game Change” by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Anytime and every time I watch a movie that is based on incidents that actually happened or that starts off with the words; ‘This Is A True Story’ I immediately start thinking of bovine excrement.  Because for me, unless somebody was right there with a camera at the moment that it happened, you’re not accurately documenting events as they actually happened.  And even then, documentaries can be edited to reflect the attitudes, prejudices and politics of the filmmaker (I’m looking at you, Michael Moore) But even that’s all right with me.  We’re human beings and I don’t think that any of us can be truly and completely objective about anything that we passionately care about.  And that includes politics.  A subject that in the past decade has polarized this country in a way none of us have ever been seen before and probably never dreamed could happen.

My point being that I can’t take movies based on true events  entirely seriously.  They’re made long after the fact when people have had time to analyze, scrutinize, discuss and dissect what happened and why.  Factor in that everything everybody remembers or doesn’t remember is flavored by their emotional, mental and even physical condition before and after adds up to too much of a gap for me to accept everything presented in a movie based on true events in good faith.  But that was before we entered the age of YouTube, CNN, TMZ and two dozen 24-hour news channels.  This is pointed out by McCain Campaign Chairman Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) to Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) early on in GAME CHANGE and he’s right on point.  The 2008 Presidential Election was without a doubt the most compelling and important election in American history as it was the election that saw an African-American man elected President of The United States.   It was played out in public in a way that elections never had been before thanks to the communication and social media that now dominates and in so many ways infects our society.

And it also gave us Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska who was picked by Senator John McCain’s staff to be his running mate.  Both are still with us and if GAME CHANGE teaches us anything is that even if Sarah Palin didn’t become Vice President of The United States, she still won.  Presidential hopeful Senator John McCain (Ed Harris) is losing the race and he knows it.  In desperation he calls up genius political strategist Steve Schmidt and begs him to come on board his team and save his campaign.  Schmidt’s plan is to find a running mate who can compete with the rock star popularity and megawatt charisma of Barack Obama.  Campaign Manager Rick Davis (Peter MacNicol) thinks he’s got just the thing: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin who appears to have all the qualities they need and more.

She’s a married mother of five, everybody loves her, she’s accessible, she’s extraordinarily popular and it certainly doesn’t hurt that even after having five kids she’s gorgeous and looks wonderful on camera.  The problem is that she is woefully unprepared for the job.   She’s devastating in public appearances where she demonstrates a rock star personality equal to Barack Obama’s.  She’s spectacular when giving a speech.  But in horrendous one-on-one interviews with the press it’s as obvious as a slap upside the head that she doesn’t know a thing about domestic and foreign policy.  She’s ignorant of basic government practices and information that fifth graders know.  She can’t even name a single newspaper even though she claims to read “a lot of them every day” She makes statements that are blatantly untrue. And it soon becomes clear to Schmidt, Davis, McCain speechwriter Mark Salter (Jamey Sheridan) and Senior Advisor Nicolle Wallace (Sarah Paulson) that they’ve been given the mother of sow’s ears and they have absolutely no idea of how to turn it into a silk purse.

I wish that HBO had went ahead and made a whole mini-series based on the book as it deals with a whole lot more than just the McCain/Palin campaign which actually is only one section of the book.  But that’s a small quibble.  Taken purely as drama, GAME CHANGE is worth seeing just for the really strong cast that sells the story.  Ed Harris, Woody Harrelson, Jamey Sheridan, Peter MacNicol, Sarah Paulson and Ron Livingston are all great here.  And as Sarah Palin, Julianne Moore looks and sounds so much like her that it’s downright scary.  And while it would be easy for the movie to give us the Tina Fey version of Sarah Palin, the movie is remarkably fair in its depiction of her.  We see the opportunistic Sarah Palin who suddenly found herself thrust onto the world stage and promptly milked it for all it was worth.   But we also see the frightened and very much out of her league Sarah Palin who starts out as a goldfish among sharks but quickly learns how to be a barracuda.  I also liked how the movie showed the many times when John McCain was urged by his staff to run a dirty, mud-slinging campaign and refused.  As played by Ed Harris he comes across as a man of dignity and honor.

It wouldn’t take much for GAME CHANGE to have been pushed into a full-blown political satire as it comes awful close at times.  And through the use of today’s technology which enables the actors to be flawlessly inserted by digital black magic into archival footage, the line between fact and fiction is erased far too well, if you ask me.  Well worth your time to watch if you have HBO.  And if you don’t, be sure to look for it on DVD or Netflix.

120 minutes.  

There’s no rating for GAME CHANGE.  While there is no sex or violence in the movie, be advised that the f-bomb is dropped numerous times.