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If ever there was a movie destined to be written about in an "elevated" realm beyond the movie pages, it's Primary Colors. Thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, the Hollywood-Washington nexus has lifted director Mike Nichols' picture, based on the 1996 bestseller by Joe Klein, into a higher stratosphere than it deserves. In much the same way that people mistook the "importance" of the 1976 movie All the President's Men for the importance of the actual events at its source -- Watergate -- Primary Colors is being puffed by circumstance. We are told in interview after interview, on TV and in the papers and slick magazines (including a Time cover story), that Primary Colors is about "honor." But clear away all this state-of-the-union blather, and what Primary Colors is really about is the itch of office. It's saying this: Our greatest Presidents have jumbo libidos, and it's not an aberration; rather, it's an integral part of who they are. Get used to it.

Klein's novel, authored as "Anonymous" and published in February 1996, was a sharp, quick read -- the work of a political reporter (New York magazine, Newsweek, and currently The New Yorker) who knew the intimacies of Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign and made his readers feel as if they were insiders. It's a roman a clef written by an outraged idealist. But because Klein -- whose identity as the author was finally uncovered last year -- brings his ambivalence about the quasi-Clinton character Gov. Jack Stanton right into the mix, the book seems closer to our own conflicted feelings about politicians than the usual black-and-white portrayals of standard political pulp.

The movie of Primary Colors, which was scripted by Elaine May, tries to be both wised-up and idealistic. It's at its best when it's just on the cusp of lampoon. But clearly Nichols and May are aiming higher. Hollywood has a habit of mucking up comedy with civic-minded goo, and, at about the halfway point in Primary Colors, the goo takes over. This is the stuff that will land the movie on daily newspapers' op-ed pages, but it doesn't do much for us.

In a way I suspect most audiences watching Primary Colors will be way ahead of it -- not just in terms of the latest twists and turns in the Clinton-o-rama but also in terms of their own moral savvy. After all it's already been pretty much established that a large chunk of the American public could care less if Clinton has a well-oiled zipper as long as the economy is improving, crime is down, yadda yadda yadda. Because of its time lag in getting to the screen, Primary Colors seems dated not so much because of its plot as because of its attitudes. It's preaching to the converted -- or at least to the disinterested.

The film is refracted through the eyes of the author's surrogate -- Henry Burton (the British stage actor Adrian Lester), a black Congressional aide whose grandfather was a civil rights icon. Wooed by Stanton (John Travolta), the governor of an unnamed Southern state, who is lagging in the Democratic presidential primaries, Burton warily joins up and becomes a true believer.

He's a potentially fascinating character -- the postboomer political idealist. In an exchange with Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson), Jack's wife, he says, "You had Kennedy. I want to be part of something that is history." Burton allows himself to be mesmerized by the governor because he recognizes the good the candidate is trying to accomplish. As Stanton's serial sex scandals pile up, Burton finds it increasingly difficult to remain enraptured. But he isn't just the author's surrogate; he's ours, too. His rite of passage is presented as a coming-of-age parable: He becomes an adult when he understands his heroes have clay feet.

Burton's counterpart is Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), the governor's confidante and political troubleshooter, who once worked for McGovern and still has her counterculture credentials. She's the outraged idealist as '60s survivor. Beneath all her bluster is an innocence to match Burton's -- she wants to work with someone who really cares. That's why she and Burton become soul mates.

But Burton, although well played by Lester, doesn't occupy the movie's center. He's too blandly symbolic a character to take hold of our imagination; he represents the losing of an innocence we have already lost. Instead, the center, if it exists at all, belongs to Stanton. Travolta has chosen to play him with a marked Clinton drawl and body language, and the result has a charming, eerie weightlessness (even though Travolta added twenty pounds for the role). By making the Clinton-Stanton connection so obvious, the performance takes on the trappings of revue-sketch impersonation. Stanton is a cartoon, a cartoon who feels pain and wants to help people. This is a promising touch: Because politics can hollow out even the best of politicians, maybe all we can expect from them is a kind of deeply felt charade. Stanton's shimmering unreality makes more psychological sense than we might care to admit.

And yet for this movie to work as something more than a sly spree, the governor, for all his messing around, also has to seem heroic to us. We need to be mesmerized right along with Burton, and we're not. And I think that's because Nichols is such a slick cynic that he can't portray a world in which goodness really shines. The rubes in this movie remain rubes. At a Stanton Thanksgiving party at the Governor's Mansion, we see his cracker buddies swarming the vast lawn, and the sight is not pretty. Later, when Burton watches Stanton on TV in a diner crowded with regular folks, the patrons seem stunted, unwashed. Nichols has made a movie about a politician with the common touch, but he himself lacks it. Primary Colors looks like a movie about bleeding-heart liberals made by a Republican fat cat.

If Stanton was a real spellbinder, we might feel more conflicted about his transgressions. If we could see more evidence of his good works, then his bad works might not seem so prominent. But most of the time, he's just being a pol: putting on a yarmulke to get the Jewish vote in Florida, getting all teary-eyed and sincere in his televised primary debates, and so on. When Burton's radical journalist girlfriend (Rebecca Walker) tells him Stanton is just a "cracker who hasn't done piss-ass for the black man in his own state," there's no evidence she's mistaken. (The film never explores a great subject: the ways in which blacks allow themselves to be manipulated by white politicians.) Near the film's end, when Stanton delivers a eulogy for a fallen comrade -- whose fall he precipitated -- Nichols barely shows us the oration. We don't get to see how Stanton pulls genuine feeling from his own hypocrisy. And if we don't see this sort of thing, then what is there about this character to make us woozy? He's a spellbinder without a spell. Even the common touches surrounding Stanton come across as gross. When we see him with his face stuffed with donuts or his fingers sticky from eating ribs, he's not a down-home man of the people, he's just a big bubba.

I doubt this is the way Stanton was meant to register, but Nichols' elitism probably got the better of him. He can't connect to the life force in all that grossness. Stanton doesn't even have much of a family context; his young son pops up briefly, as does his mother (Diane Ladd), but they have almost no emotional weight. Wife Susan is the film's only family-style triumph, and that's mostly because Thompson is expert at showing how this politician's spouse balances pragmatism with rage. She's a sharpie who knows the score about her husband's philandering but also recognizes the reason to stay in the game. She can deliver a stinging slap to Stanton in full view of Burton but -- and here's what makes Thompson's performance special -- she also shows us how this woman can still remain in thrall to him.

There are other expert performances, including Larry Hagman's Gov. Fred Picker, who gives Stanton a dose of his own common-touch medicine, and Billy Bob Thornton's Richard Jemmons, Stanton's political adviser who fulfills the description Klein gave him in the novel: "He looked like he was sired during the love scene in Deliverance."

But Nichols never brings all these actors together into any kind of coherent social vision. Primary Colors lacks the buzz and crackle of observed experience; you never feel as if you've been plunged into the workings of a real campaign. It's a sham movie about a sham world.

Primary Colors.
Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Elaine May, based on the book by Joe Klein. Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Adrian Lester.

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Peter Rainer

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