By William Wolf

PRIMARY COLORS  Send This Review to a Friend

It's really shortsighted to look slavishly at PRIMARY COLORS as a satirical parallel to the machinations of Bill and Hillary Clinton and their political cohorts. Sure, Joe Klein's novel on which it was based invited comparisons. So does the film version. But Clintons will come and go. Smartly scripted by Elaine May and cannily directed by Mike Nichols, the film is a razor-sharp look at candidates, campaigns and the dissembling that's a virtual requisite for capturing the White House in contemporary, television-driven America.

The behind-the-scenes look has much broader range than merely trying to target the current situation. John Travolta in his devilishly charming award-caliber performance as manipulative candidate Jack Stanton, a Southern governor, will remind you of Clinton, and the sexual scandals that threaten him have a familiar ring. But "Primary Colors" goes beyond easy comparison. It shines a spotlight on the American political system, 1990s fashion, and there's no reason to believe that, save for different details, it will be significantly different in the next millenium no matter who the candidates are.

Adrian Lester is excellent as the African-American idealist whose illusions are shattered while working as the candidate's campaign aide. But there's something very disturbing about where the film ultimately stands. In effect, it concludes that the end justifies the means, indicating that if the President wants to do good for the people, it doesn't matter what cynical moves and cover-ups occur along the way. That's a tough message to swallow, and it does the film no credit on that score.

But this is a movie, and as such it is entertaining nearly all of the way, thanks to some sharp scripting and performing. Emma Thompson is convincing as the wife who calculatingly puts up with the embarrassment of her husband's sexual exploits, Kathy Bates is outstanding as a loyalist whose job it is to be aware of the underlying dirt so the candidate can be protected. Billy Bob Thornton cuts a tough figure as a wise and savvy staffer. There are numerous other strong, realistic performances.

The laughs come often, and if you relax and don't just try to match the movie characters to those in real life you can enjoy the film even more. While "Primary Colors" is mostly slick and amusing, the maudlin turn it takes toward the end contains some less than convincing sermonizing. The film works best when comically at its nastiest but it deserves more than being relegated to a tweak at President Clinton, as critics have tended to see it. On that score, nothing can compete with the real events that provide fodder for comedians on late night television. But "Primary Colors" merits a longer life as a chronicle of our political era. A Universal Pictures release.


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