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Why Primary Colors is the late Mike Nichols' best film

Primary Colors wins Alyssa Rosenberg's vote as the late Mike Nichols' best work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 2014, 8:28pm

At the beginning of Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998), Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a southern politician considering a run for the US presidency, visits an adult literacy class in Harlem, New York. After hearing some of the students' humiliations and struggles, he shares a story about his Uncle Charlie, who won a Medal of Honour in the second world war but refused all offers of work after he returned home.

"He just laid down on his couch and smoked his Luckies. You couldn't get him off that couch," Stanton explains. "Was he messed up in the head, you know, from the war?" one of the students asks. "No. It was just that he couldn't read," Stanton replies. The class goes wild.

Later, young political idealist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) visits Stanton's entourage in a hotel suite. Among the people hanging around is an older man named Charlie. "Are you Uncle Charlie, the Medal of Honour winner?" he asks, having seen Stanton's performance earlier. "Well, I'm Uncle Charlie," the man tells Burton. "And whatever else he says, he's a master."

It is because of extended jokes like that one that Primary Colors is my favourite film by Nichols, the director-producer-actor who died on November 19 aged 83.

The Graduate (1967) and Heartburn (1986) - horror movies disguised as relationship dramas - are magnificent. The Birdcage (1996) remains warm and funny, even as the rapid progress of gay rights history has made it look a little dated. But Nichols' adaptation of Joe Klein's novel about a fictionalised version of Bill and Hillary Clinton and the dangers of political "true-believerism" deserves its due as an important entry in the pantheon of the man who also made Oscar-nominated whistleblower drama Silkwood (1983).

All of Nichols' movies are well-cast, but the ensemble in Primary Colors is particularly outstanding.

As Stanton, Travolta masters both Bill Clinton's sleepy smile and public charm, as well as Stanton's private menace. He's the kind of guy who will throw a cellphone out of the window of a moving car, and then, when his wife finds the darn thing, insists, "You wouldn't have found it if I hadn't thrown it out the car", turning her exasperated victory on a hugely petty matter into proof of his genius. And while Englishman Lester's American accent may be a little faulty, he does nice, subtle work of showing Burton get swept up in Stanton enthusiasm and then spending the next two hours recovering from the infection.

Billy Bob Thornton is at his dirtbag greatest as political consultant Richard Jemmons. In one immortal scene, he unzips his fly in the campaign office in an effort to convince young aide Jennifer Rogers (Stacy Edwards) to go to bed with him. "I've never seen one that … old before," she tells him with perfect aplomb.

And there is Kathy Bates as longtime Stanton family friend Libby Holden, just recovered from a stay in a mental hospital and raring to destroy anyone she thinks poses a threat to her favourite couple. "I am a gay lesbian woman!" she roars, a pistol jammed into the sensitive regions of a local lawyer who has been making money by selling Stanton stories to a national tabloid. "I do not mythologise the male sexual organ!"

Best of all, there is Emma Thompson as Susan Stanton, the best fictional Hillary ever put to page or screen. Klein and Nichols both lean into the idea that Susan (and Hillary) is the cool political intelligence in the couple, her near-perfection, as Klein describes it, "a vengeful act" she deploys to draw attention to her husband's flaws and to make him realise how much he needs her. But rather than rendering her hateful or priggish, Thompson makes Susan lively and funny, as well as a compelling portrait of the cost of propping up a flawed but wildly talented man.

All Nichols’ movies are well-cast, but the ensemble in Primary Colors is particularly outstanding

"Do you realise how indescribably boring fly-fishing is?" Susan asks Stanton in her first scene in the movie, meeting him on a tarmac in New Hampshire after Stanton blew off the head of the Portsmouth Democratic Committee, leaving Susan to chat to the man about his hobbies. "I've committed to doing this, this thing with him. I'm going fly-fishing with him, you [expletive]."

Later, at a dinner for Jimmy Ozio (a stand-in for Andrew Cuomo, played by Robert Cicchini), he asks her, "You don't mind us talking business, do you?" Susan slips into a perfect pantomime of a slightly dim political wife. "How else will I learn?" she tells him, practically batting her eyelashes.

Nichols owes some of the best material in Primary Colors to Klein's writing. But the filmmaker and his screenwriter, Elaine May, also smooth off some of the story's rougher edges and sand down Klein's purplest prose. And Nichols animates the whole thing with the sort of wry soundtrack that was another of his hallmarks: Camptown Races plays over the opening credits, while Willie Nelson's On the Road Again pokes fun at Burton's efforts to build a campaign staff out of local volunteers. When he indulges in a spin of Orleans' Still the One in a moment of triumph for the campaign, Nichols manages to earn even the cheesy emotions evoked by the song.

Certainly one of the reasons this 16-year-old film continues to feel fresh and funny, even though it is a dispatch from the pre-internet era of campaigning and even though real life has outpaced even Klein's fervid imagination, is the Clintons' continued prominence in American political life. But there is more to Primary Colors than that.

Even as the zone of privacy politicians can expect when they step onto the national stage has shrunk dramatically, Primary Colors assures us that there is something raw and secret still hidden from us. And while sizing up whether the Clintons are worth their baggage and their sometimes terrible taste in advisers may be a mighty task for political operatives, they are hardly the only couple who present that dilemma.

To strive for greatness, you have to accumulate power first. That does not always have to be a dirty process. But it is inevitably a nasty one.

The Washington Post