'Primary Colors': THR's 1998 Review

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Emma Thompson and John Travolta in 1998's 'Primary Colors.'
At its most revealing, 'Primary Colors' rolls with a telling back-of-the-bus, inside-the-motel feel, cluing us to the inside workings of a shoestring, but wondrously successful, political campaign.

On March 20, 1998, Universal unveiled the R-rated political drama Primary Colors in theaters. The film went on to nab two nominations at the 15th Academy Awards, for Kathy Bates in the supporting actress category and for its screenplay. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

John Travolta presses the flesh in all its current presidential connotations in Primary Colors, an enthralling, entertaining slant on the Clinton quest for the Oval Office.

Chock-full of doughnuts and drawl, Travolta's performance, together with Emma Thompson's pithy portrayal of a Hillary-esque mate, should lure sophisticated audiences to this Mike Nichols-directed film. Universal's chief marketing challenge will be to rally an electorate that is, perhaps, already sated and OD'd on news of the president's myriad marital infidelities. Still, come election time next year — we're talking Oscar votes — both Travolta and Thompson are likely to be leading contenders for their respective categories' nominations. It's easily the funniest and, perhaps, most cynical portrait of a political campaign since The Candidate, in which Robert Redford starred as a pretty-boy candidate who had nothing on the ball but media allure.

In this "fictional" scenario, only the names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent: Travolta stars as Jack Stanton, an ambitious governor of a Southern hick state who has decided to buck the odds and run for president. Based on the novel Primary Colors by Anonymous (aka Joe Klein), Primary Colors takes to the narrative trail as the idealistic governor and his equally ambitious wife Susan (Thompson) begin their underdog and unlikely quest for the presidency. Prismed through the viewpoint of a conscientious young black campaign manager, Henry (Adrian Lester), who thinks the pragmatic, populist Stanton has a real chance at winning but who chafes at the candidate's personal practices, Primary Colors is, by extension, shrewdly positioned to look at both sides of the presidential posture here. It is at once laudatory and almost fawning over the candidate's genuine concern for common, everyday people, while at the same time it disapproves of the increasingly hardball nature of the Stanton campaign camp, as well as the candidate's propensity to, seemingly, bed every woman in range.

You'd probably have to go on a location shoot to find a more mixed bag of people than on a political campaign, especially one as contradictory as a liberal from a small Southern state running for president. To say that the Stanton campaign is made up of colorful characters is an understatement, beginning with the Carville-esque Richard (Billy Bob Thornton), a sly "redneck" strategist who comes across as some sort of lefty Hunter Thompson, and troubleshooter Libby (Kathy Bates), an old Razorback friend who's done a stint in a mental home and packs a big gun, literally. In its most rollicksome, Primary Colors filmically resembles some sort of Bad News Bears on the road as the scrappy batch of outsider/Dixie underdogs take on all the big fat cats and political machines cross-country, including most challengingly "New Yawk."

At its most revealing, Primary Colors rolls with a telling back-of-the-bus, inside-the-motel feel, cluing us to the inside workings of a shoestring, but wondrously successful, political campaign.

There's no denying the appeal and charisma of candidate Stanton. His concerns for the "little guy" are genuine, and he becomes teary-eyed, seemingly, daily over their woes. Such compassion almost seems wasted by running for office — this guy would make a great mortician, grieving sincerely over every deceased "customer."

Unfortunately, this is only one side of the candidate's coin; the other side reveals an almost pathological need to cohabit with any and every skirt in sight, despite the fact that it pains his stalwart wife terribly. In Elaine May's perceptive screenplay, it's almost as if this guy has a narcissistic, psychological need to screw up (we use this term in varied senses) so that he can rally his personality to once again win everyone's love. And this smart reel-lifer shows up-close what the real-life polls have been telling us — he rises from the ashes of each encounter. Like Titanic, we all know the ending going in, but it's in the hurly-burly of the quest itself that is most entertaining and illuminating.

The performances are splendid, beginning with Travolta's magnificent turn as the big-hearted but hardballing man with 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on his horizon. Travolta balances Stanton's contradictions, the type of guy who at the end of a punishing jog finds himself seated at the doughnut shop, talking politics to the counter man. There's a telling, marvelously composed scene of the candidate sitting alone in the wee small hours, downing apple fritters and empathizing with Danny, the handicapped counter man. You can't help but like this man — a credit to Travolta's winning style that does great honor to the Man in the White House.

As Susan, the supportive-to-a-fault, enabler wife who wears the pants in the family (and keeps them on), Thompson's performance is also an astute balancing act, conveying both the steely nature of her character as well as the anguish she goes through in private. The "Bubba Brigade" itself is a terrific mix, beginning with Lester's measured performance in the touchstone part, the young man whose ambivalence about his leader is both painful and inspiring. Thornton is perfect as the wily, sharp-shooting strategist, while Caroline Aaron is terrifically scary as Susan's loudmouthed, buttinsky friend. Larry Hagman is stirring as a decent governor who has been felled by personal problems from the past, and Bates is perfectly pugnacious as a not-so-good ol' gal. Praise to casting directors Juliet Taylor, Ellen Lewis and Juel Bestrop for these fitting selections.

The technical bunting is a perfect, Southern-fried smear of red, white and blue, beginning with Michael Ballhaus' evocative compositions and colorations as well as Bo Welch's down and lofty production design. Ry Cooder's raucous and haunting music is a fitting blend of Southern discomfort, while costume designer Ann Roth's fabrics bring out the personal flavors on this rag-tag, history-making trek. — Duane Byrge, originally published March 13, 1998.