Primary Colors Review

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A Presidential candidate is haunted by barely concealed scandals as he runs for election.


With Wag The Dog only just departing the multiplexes when this film came out, and Warren's Beatty's senatorial turn in Bulworth looming on the horizon, it seemed that a would-be White House dweller involved in greasy dealings was the Hollywood role du jour. And this time around it's Travolta's turn.

Primary Colors may lack Wag's frightening prescience but it already has one advantage over its rivals; namely the infamy of the novel from which it originates. The tome in question hit the world's bookstands three years ago with an Anonymous credit to protect the author, something which the closing credits repeat even though the writer's identity has long since been revealed as that of Clinton aide Joe Klein. But over and above debates about its source, Colors proved such a popular page-turner that a film was inevitable.

Thus we have Travolta, complete with greying temples and spilling paunch, as Southern governor Jack Stanton, whose ability to manipulate the voting public so coolly is almost matched by his penchant for infidelity. Thompson is Susan, his emotionally volatile missus who stands by him no matter what. And steering them to hopeful triumph is a campaign team led by Henry Burton (British actor Lester), which is far from easy, given that Stanton's tarnished past, from draft-dodging to allegations of clandestine phone chat with a sexy Southern hairdresser, comes back to haunt him, give his rivals the advantage and provides the media with a scandal feeding frenzy that might just jeopardise his chances.

Although those involved are quick to deny that Primary Colors is a Valentine to President Clinton, there's no denying that Travolta, with his silvery hair, excess poundage, regional drawl and fondness for doughnut ingestion, bears close resemblance to the leader of the free world. And it's equally feasible that Thompson, all smart suits and clipped Chicago tones, could pass for Hillary in a certain light.

That aside, Nichols delivers an unusually good film-to-book transformation, slick, commercial, and consistently entertaining despite its running time; every moment matters here, a rarity in movies of this length. Largely this is thanks to Elaine May's script, which remains faithful to its roots and is more concerned with colourful characterisation than bogging down the audience with weighty political issues. Travolta and Thompson make for a perfect presidential couple, he alternating laidback mateyness with alarmingly childish tantrums, she gracious, nervy and long-suffering.

The real joy, though, comes from the starry gallery of supporting talent, who succeed in creating the sort of vivid folk you actually end up caring about. Billy Bob Thornton is a treat as a lecherous strategist, Larry Hagman (yes, that Larry Hagman) delightfully bewildered as Stanton's biggest rival, while Lester is a real discovery. But the show is truly stolen by Kathy Bates, whose turn as expletive-spewing lesbian political fixer Libby Holden, fresh from a lengthy spell in the "booby-hatch", gives her her most memorable role since Misery. A top-drawer satire; one which manages to be politically incorrect in all the right ways.

Spot on satire with pitch perfect performances and a colourful script.