Primary Colors (1998)
Written by Elaine May
Directed by Mike Nichols
Henry Burton is a young man working his way into the political scene, but almost everyone he meets knows him as the grandson of a great civil rights leader. Henry ends up under the radar of the campaign to elect Governor Jack Stanton president. Stanton is an incredibly charismatic Southerner with a headstrong wife, Susan, who wants nothing more for her husband to attain this high office. As Henry says, Stanton seems like the real thing, and before he knows it, the young man is swept up into the momentum of Stanton’s ascendancy. As the campaign drags on though, Henry begins to learn more about the man at the center of things, about his infidelities, indiscretions, and lies. Henry is forced to face the hypocrisies that are unfolding before him and decide if this is the path he wants to continue down.
The first thing to acknowledge with this film is that it is a collaboration between Nichols & May! If you aren’t familiar, Elaine May and Mike Nichols were an improv comedy duo in the late 1950s and 60s. Their run was brief but left a significant impression on comedy that continues into today. The two would have very divergent yet similar careers, both ending up in filmmaking. May would reach a terminal point as a director with Ishtar, a notorious flop. She re-teamed with Nichols in 1996 for The Birdcage and then Primary Colors. I wouldn’t say this is an excellent work of comedy, though it does have those moments, it is a flawed examination of the Clinton presidency.
Primary Colors fails at being a satire, which is what the book and film were billed as. I can’t speak for the book as I haven’t read it, but the movie becomes a melodrama by its conclusion. There is a sense of the artist wanting to become too earnest about his subjects, handle them with too gentle a touch. This is the death of good satire in my opinion. The best satire does contain humanity, yes, but it charges headlong into the darkest, nastiest elements of its topic. Our culture has sadly come to label parody as a satire, which they are cousins to each other, parody is a softer, more playful and silly commentary. Good satirical art is challenging and uncomfortable.
The story is not a straight one to one translation of the Clinton presidential campaign with names simply changed. The most significant invention is Fred Picker, a retired politician who steps in to run with Stanton’s most prominent opponent suffers multiple heart attacks. Picker ends up being a crucial plot element in the story that is used to highlight the shrugging off of principles by the Stanton campaign. There’s also a Gennifer Flowers-esque subplot that is settled much more efficiently than the real-life scenario Bill Clinton confronted in 1992.
The film is overlong at 140 minutes. However, for all that runtime, so many relationships feel underwritten or developed. Henry ends up in a relationship of sorts with a fellow campaign member, and we never get any real substance from that. What’s even worse are some of the incredibly poor performances delivered by otherwise great or decent actors. Adrian Lester plays Henry and is painfully stiff and never feels like a multi-dimensional character. He often merely feels like the audience surrogate and not a human being unto himself.
Concerning touching upon the zeitgeist, Primary Colors was released in the months before the Clinton impeachment trial, when America was swept into a tabloid fervor by Monica Lewinsky. On a surface level, it appears like a very timely film, but there’s little depth to explore about the Clintons. There is the potential for something great in Primary Colors, an uncensored glimpse into the craven extremes political campaigns will go to secure a win. However, Nichols sadly doesn’t strike at the material with this sort of acid precision.