Primary Colors

"Aw, c'mon, Henry. This is ridiculous: you've gotta be with me."

(Dir. Mike Nichols) (1998)

Probably the best political road movie, almost a primer of American Democratic Presidential politics.  Great direction by Mike Nichols, solid performances and a sensational script (by Elaine May).

The book published by Anonymous (Joe Klein) is a roman à clef about the Bill Clinton comeback campaign of 1992.  Profane, salty, clever, hilarious and sad, it is a fascinating story of the politician’s challenge to be all things to all, a marathon, run as a sprint.

"I don't think I'd ever heard...a speaker who measured his audience so well and connected so precisely."

“I don’t think I’d ever heard…a speaker who measured his audience so well and connected so precisely.”

John Travolta is uncanny as Governor* Jack Stanton.  In P’s favourite scene, where Stanton addresses a union crowd in a cold, closed-down factory, he seems to be Bill Clinton, and even more chilling, his blather actually moves you.  Emma Thompson was never better as the long-suffering Hilary knock-off, and you gain insight from the two leads’ preformance into the power of a driven couple with complementary skills.

"You are my sunshine..."**

“You are my sunshine…”

Adrian Lester, as Henry Burton, a notional Nick Carraway, plunges in to the vortex of the Stanton campaign, romancing political aide Daisy (Maura Tierney), learning from adoptive mother and political dust-buster Libby (Kathy Bates), teaming up with Stanton’s James Carville-style strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) and investigating the sordid past of rival Governor, Fred Picker (Larry Hagman, in a star turn).

Great scenes abound: The Factory Speech; Jack Stanton has yet another apple fritter at Krispy Kreme; He uplifts illiterates at an adult literacy meeting with fake  stories about his Uncle Charlie; He then talks Henry Burton into cutting class tomorrow (“I’m sure the kids won’t mind”); Susan tells Henry that the best people never learn to avoid getting burned; His girlfriend doubts his sincerity; The team has to take up with Mrs Stanton the delicate matter of her husband’s peccadillos; At a thanksgiving party, Stanton boogies (badly) on the dance floor (it takes a great dancer such as Travolta to make such a realistic hash of it); Libby tells Henry what a privileged life he’s led; and then there are the meetings, at Willy’s BBQ place (P must one day go there), interminable hotels, the Governor’s mansion, Neo-Bwana Land…all round, a thick tasty slice of modern American life.

[*In America, any officeholder seems to retain the status long after leaving office.]


[** During the ‘policy discussion’ at the BBQ place (the BBQ opportunities offer, for P, the best reason to visit Arkansas), Richard starts crying during a Southern Mommathon, and Jack and Co. soothe him by singing the most damn American song ever – ‘and a Southern Governor wrote it’.  That song is You Are my Sunshine, co-written by Louisiana Governor Jimmie H Davis, neatly described in An American Melodrama thus: “It seems odd that such a sunny fellow is also a relentless segregationist and was the author of the heartless legislation that took Negro women with illegitimate children off the relief rolls and left them to hustle or starve.”]

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