Primary Colors | Chicago Reader

Primary Colors

I've only skimmed the best-selling novel that this is based on, so I can't say precisely how much Elaine May's screenplay—produced and directed by Mike Nichols—takes from it. But something resembling a Brechtian comedy about the Clintons and scandal-ridden politics in general has emerged from the adaptation—something witty, thoughtful, timely, grandly entertaining, and ultimately very serious about the way presidential campaigns are run. It's no surprise to learn that outside the movie the filmmakers support the Clintons over their enemies; what is surprising for a mainstream movie is that final moral judgments are basically left up to the viewer. (By comparison, Wag the Dog seems like a bit of flip arrogance.) John Travolta is wonderful as Clinton stand-in Jack Stanton, a southern governor running for president, and Emma Thompson as his wife is only a shade less convincing; Adrian Lester adeptly plays the idealistic black political strategist who goes to work for them and leads us into their world. Matching up the others with their real-life (and sometimes not-so-real-life) counterparts is part of the game this movie invites one to play, but whether one recognizes their characters or not, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Larry Hagman give May's dialogue all the color and nuance it deserves.

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