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M O V I E   R E V I E W

Review: 'Primary Colors' brilliant, touching, hilarious

March 20, 1998
Web posted at: 7:39 p.m. EDT (1939 GMT)

From Reviewer Paul Clinton

(CNN) -- "Primary Colors" portrays politics at its bare-knuckled, muckraking worst, warts and all. Utterly brilliant, profoundly moving, and wickedly funny, "Primary Colors" is both compelling and repelling at the same time. Simply put, it may leave you emotionally reeling.

Based on the 1996 best-selling novel of the same name, this film, directed by Mike Nichols and written by his muse Elaine May, asks some very basic questions: Who are the leaders we as a nation want? Who are the leaders we deserve? And who can live up to, or even survive, the process?

Since the film deals with a presidential election, there is built-in dramatic tension, but there are also amazing comedic moments and deeply touching scenes.

John Travolta is magnificent as the raspy-voiced Gov. Jack Stanton, a man who sincerely cares about people and issues. At the same time he cynically manipulates everyone he meets while he's running for president. He's one of the world's greatest seducers -- emotionally and sexually.

Emma Thompson's Susan Stanton is equally good with her own type of seduction and manipulation, as she courts and bullies her way through a take-no-prisoners presidential campaign.

British stage actor Adrian Lester gives a beautifully understated performance as Henry Burton. He's the main protagonist of the film, serving as Stanton's political strategist and, more importantly, his conscience. He's also the narrator and moral center of the film.

Special nods also go to Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates, as Richard and Libby, the governor's left and right hands, who throw mud and clean up dirt. For him it's a job, for her it's a mission.

Nichols and May once again prove to be masters at plugging into our national subconscious, mirroring our best and our worst tendencies while at the same time making us laugh and think.

Clinton bashers will easily find many obvious similarities between Travolta's chicken-eating, doughnut-stuffing Stanton and the former governor of Arkansas, and will likely draw the comparison between the film's Cashmere McCloud (could there be a more airheaded name for a character?) and Gennifer Flowers.

But it would be a mistake to label this film as simply a Clintonesque rehashing of the 1992 presidential campaign, or accept this story as gospel about our president.

No, this is a tale about ideals, illusions and delusions. It's about image and reality. It's about our political process becoming as staged, faked and meaningless as professional wrestling. It's about people who are not evil but are merely human, and, at times, sad.

At one point Stanton sums things up with the statement, "This is the price you pay to lead." Is it? Is it worth it? You may find yourself thinking that the country may have been better off, after all, if British had won the war back in 1776.

I knew I would laugh during this film about a politician whose Achilles' heel is located behind his zipper, but I didn't know I'd also feel like crying.


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