Tale Of Two Bills
Blurring fact and fiction is old hat, but when Travolta and Clinton face off in Primary Colors, the film reflects our times
By Eric Pooley
(TIME, March 16) -- If you had any doubt that the country has arrived at an uncanny cultural and political moment, consider this: John Travolta can do a better Bill Clinton than Clinton can. The President's performances these days are often subdued--seven weeks of stalling and refusing to explain his relationship with Monica Lewinsky seem to have shorted out his emotional connection to America. And now comes Travolta in Primary Colors, the Mike Nichols movie based on Joe Klein's novel about the 1992 campaign, with a portrayal so deeply and exuberantly Clintonian that it reminds you of everything you've ever loved and hated about the man. Blurring fact and fiction is old hat by now, but the hat has never fit quite so snugly. Imagine Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men hitting theaters with Nixon still in office--but this time, it's played partly for laughs.
Travolta's Jack Stanton may be comic hyperbole, but the real Clinton at his best is just as overstated--a sprawling, irreducible character who belongs not in the cramped precincts of American politics but in the wide-open fields of American fiction, which is where Klein had the good sense to put him. But though Klein left enough wiggle room for a reader to create a different character in the mind's eye, the movie allows nothing of the kind. From the very first scene, that's him up there, and it's a shock--the first of many, because Primary Colors goes on to suggest deeper truths about Clinton and his country than journalism has yet been able to provide: that of course the better angels of Clinton's nature are in bed with his devils, that each side requires the other, that his political gifts can't be separated from his personal flaws. Idealist and cynic, moralist and seducer, truth teller and liar, misty-eyed romantic and gimlet-eyed backstabber--it's all one package. Maybe the right leader for now is the one who will stop at nothing, the one who can be absolutely sincere while lying through his teeth.
Since Nichols and Clinton have socialized together, the movie was dismissed in advance as an apologia. As it turns out, the director's understanding of Clinton allowed him to create a presidential portrait that in many ways is more damning than any right-wing caricature, because it feels so real. Largely completed before America had heard of Lewinsky, the film comments on the scandal in ways that are downright eerie. Just as the public doesn't know what actually happened between Clinton and Monica--or Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, for that matter--so the movie refuses to spell out what did or didn't happen between Stanton and the women he is accused of bedding. Since unresolved questions and muddied waters are hallmarks of the Clinton presidency, glossing the indiscretions and lingering over the cover-up feels just right. The film moves from Stanton's bimbo containment and opposition-research operations (anticipating the defense lawyers and gumshoes now on Clinton's team) to the ultimate White House mystery--the nature of the Clintons' marriage, which is once again a subject of national debate. Susan Stanton slaps her husband when she hears evidence of his infidelity, yanks her hand from his after feigning forgiveness during a TV interview, yet leads the rapid-response troops--just as Hillary directs the counterattack against Ken Starr. Meanwhile, the Clinton-hating American Spectator claims Hillary "looked shaken" when she heard Clinton had given Lewinsky Whitman's Leaves of Grass and quotes her saying, "He gave me the same book after our second date." What's fact and what's fiction? Are we reverberating yet?
Ultimately, the movie makes the case that Clinton and his mouthpieces are too squeamish to put on the record: strong leaders have strong libidos; the President may be flawed, but look what he has done. "You don't think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a President?" Stanton asks his aide Henry Burton. "He had to tell his little stories and smile his s___-eating back-country grin. He did it all just so he'd get the opportunity to stand in front of the nation and appeal to the better angels of our nature." It's enough to persuade Henry, but those watching the film know more than he does: five years of scandal and accomplishment, victory and betrayal, even a real-life suicide. Is this man worth it? Will his seductions never cease? It takes a comedy to ask these questions. But when the lights come up, they're not so easy to laugh about.