It’s always something. Just when the Princess Di Circus left town, it was time to welcome the Bill and Hillary Show. While practically everyone in America turns into the F.B.I., winks and smirks turn into subpoenas, fresh scandals break daily, the press disgraces itself slinging sewage like hash, and the population takes sides on all-night blab shows, the Clintons must wake up each morning and pinch each other to see if they’re still alive. Now the sleaze moves on to a grander stage-in Mike Nichols’ $65 million Primary Colors , from Joe Klein’s best seller, written under the silly pseudonym “Anonymous.” I don’t know anyone who ever finished the book, and the fate of the movie is in serious doubt, too. At two and a half hours, it seems longer than the Nixon era.
Based on Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign, beginning with the New Hampshire primary, the book was turned down by everyone on the Hollywood A-list before Mr. Nichols shelled out $1.5 million from his own pocket to secure the film rights. With John Travolta and Emma Thompson as Bill and Hillary and a scalding, through-the-keyhole (but oddly unfunny) script by Elaine May, Primary Colors is here at last, causing an audience of tough critics at the first press preview to reflect on what Pausanias once said of the relic in the temple: Those who have not seen a miracle have at least seen a big pine cone.
The miracle is that a movie this invasive of a President’s privacy could be made while he is still in office. Primary Colors , with 97 characters and 130 sets, is slick, expensive, well made and skillfully acted by a first-rate ensemble. It is also boring. With public disgrace and impeachment gossip a resurging threat to the Clinton White House, here is a satirical poke in the eye that is nothing if not an ongoing pandemic of humiliating embarrassment. Even the Clintons’ most vociferous detractors are forced to admit whatever they’ve done, and they haven’t been dull. But you wouldn’t know it from this thinly veiled account of the First Couple’s rise to power. While the jokes (“Bill has suggested having Buddy, the White House dog, neutered; Hillary is inquiring about group rates”) escalate, nothing remotely so amusing emerges from Primary Colors . The only question that matters to most Americans is “Can one man run the most powerful nation on the planet with his fly unzipped?” The only question the film seems to pose is, “Since they’re all lying, cheating jerks anyway, how did they get this far in the first place?” Everybody connected with the film, many of them so-called “friends” of the Clintons who shit where they eat, deny it’s an indictment of the First Family and their inside groupies. All disclaimers fall on deaf ears, and the movie is its own grand jury testimony.
John Travolta looks amazingly like the President, from his paunch to his frosted hair to the way he drapes his arms over the lectern during campaign speeches. He’s mastered the body language, he gained 25 pounds and dragged his Southern accent from Urban Cowboy out of mothballs, and he’s got the same smiling, both-hands-clasping glamour and charisma. As Jack Stanton, governor of a “small Southern state” who will stop at nothing to be President, he’s a great talker, he beds the ladies while munching doughnuts and spareribs, he drinks from a mason jar and tosses a cell phone from a speeding car during a temper tantrum, and he fields questions on the draft-dodging thing, the pot-smoking thing and the bimbo thing while his less-than-honorable staff of rednecks scrapes knees to gain spin control. A fictional character? Sure, like we all know William Randolph Hearst wasn’t really Citizen Kane. But when a 17-year-old black baby sitter slaps him with a paternity suit and one of his political advisers says, “He’s poked his pecker in some sorry trash bins,” isn’t this the equivalent of shooting goldfish in a bowl with an Uzi?
Emma Thompson is coifed and dressed like a butch Hillary, with the filthy mouth of a drunken drill corps sergeant, ripping drumsticks out of her husband’s hand and smacking him across the face. But she likes having her breasts fondled. It isn’t clear what Mr. Nichols is trying to get across about Hillary. One minute she’s cleaning up after Bill and abusing him verbally (“Why not strip away those last shreds of dignity and just wallow in trash?”), and the next minute she dismisses every sin with soothing sound bites (“People go through all kinds of crazy things, but we’re still here … Jack will bust his butt for the American people”). The plotless trajectory turns incredulous when, on their climb to D.C., the Clintons knock off one opponent with a heart attack and stoop to composing a character assassination on his successor (Larry Hagman) by threatening to tell the press he’s a homosexual and a recovering cocaine addict. (” The New York Times ,” says Hillary. “No, I think The Wall Street Journal .”) Mr. Nichols rescues them every time from the errors of their ways, in a scenario too fantastic for Preston Sturges. I actually admire his reluctance to take the Clintons down completely, but some kind of attitude or opinion would make a stronger film.
George Stephanopoulos is now a saintly black idealist named Henry Burton (well played by Adrian Lester). He’s supposed to be the incorruptible moral epicenter of the film, but he comes off a bit of a fool, and he’s not above sleeping around himself. (The scene in which he takes Hillary to bed was deleted after howls of indignant protest in test-market screenings.) Campaign manager James Carville is a horny redneck cretin called Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) who smashes furniture, propositions women with come-ons (turnoffs?) like “You wanna walk the snake?” and collapses in a drunken stupor in the governor’s arms while Mr. Travolta leads his grass-roots motel assembly in a chorus of “You Are My Sunshine.” Gennifer Flowers is now Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides), a sluttish hairdresser who falsifies tapes in a sex scandal, while the only woman who really knew both sides of the Clinton persona, his mother Virginia, has been cut out of the film completely, depriving us of the pleasure of watching Diane Ladd in Dale Evans drag.
The one who should sue is trouble-shooter Betsey Wright, who is portrayed by Kathy Bates, in the film’s most enjoyable performance, as a mental case named Libby Holden. To prepare themselves for inevitable press attacks, the Clintons send for Libby, fresh out of a loony bin, a lesbian cowboy who drives a red pickup truck, cusses a blue streak and threatens political opponents with a loaded gun. On her first day at campaign headquarters, Libby plucks to her bosom the prettiest female volunteer (“The one who looks like Winona Ryder”) and beds down for the long haul.
Fact imitates fiction and vice versa, until the only real truth is Hillary’s most oft-repeated line: “We’re still here.” From the opening strains of “Camptown Races” that set the stage for this Dogpatch campaign, to the final shot of Bill and Hillary dancing through star-spangled balloons at the Inaugural Ball in Washington, it’s satire biting its own tail and choking on the hair. The characters don’t make much sense; even the smarmiest Clinton pack dogs eventually rise from campaign-trail political hardball to the moral high ground, salving over injuries to the White House and saving a lot of guilty faces from the angst of worrying what to do about their next invitation to a state dinner.
Meanwhile, the point that in politics everybody is in bed with somebody is a kind of kiss-ass apology for making the film in the first place. Whatever the outcome, curiosity-seekers be forewarned: This movie is too dodgy to provide fresh blood in a shark-feeding frenzy. What might have been lively entertainment in a slower-moving time frame is now-when new installments in the Bill and Hillary Show are arriving hourly via the Drudge Report -sadly dated before it begins. In actual time, there’s no such thing as retrospect. Things are happening faster than you can get them on film. While the American public rises early to tear open the morning papers, a movie like Primary Colors is old news. Nothing in it teaches us anything about the duplicity of sex and politics we haven’t learned already. Who cares what happened in 1992? We’re too busy trying to get through 1998’s Monica Lewinsky. Any filmmaker who takes on current events does so at his own peril. By the time cameras roll, we’re already swamped by further developments. Time has overtaken Mike Nichols. The movie is two and a half hours long, and you can’t wait to get out of there to see what happened, while you were sitting in the dark, with more pressing issues, like AIDS, anthrax and World War III.
Primary Colors is not a disaster, just an ambitious disappointment whose time has passed. It’s dull, but it could have been worse. At least it’s not a movie about Al Gore.