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Erection Campaign 

Mike Nichols colors the Clintons soft

Wednesday, Mar 18 1998
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In the nature of what sells studio movies, Primary Colors stands to gain more from the presence of John Travolta than from l'affaire Lewinsky. For better or worse, erupting bimbos are taken in stride these days, all efforts by the press to the contrary. In any case, the evening-news hounds have elided the boundaries between art and life with such efficient zeal that Monica Lewinsky has become a movie in her own right, endlessly replayed but with weaker legs than expected. Travolta, for his part, has legs aplenty. Whether he can rescue this capable but curiously bloodless film about Bill Clinton's bloody 1992 presidential campaign is another matter.

Notwithstanding director Mike Nichols' absurd insistence in Time magazine that the movie is not "literally" about the Clintons, Primary Colors is the first contemporary film to satirize a president face to face. (The others have all been composites or faceless mastheads - this one has the world's most empathic handshake, has to be dragged out of doughnut emporia and has a hard time staying zipped.) Admittedly, the diplomatic dice are loaded against Nichols. Hollywood's executive suites are studded with potentially nervous Friends of Bill - the director himself, with wife Diane Sawyer, has palled around with the First Couple - and Nichols doesn't get to Alan-Smithee himself behind the anonymous authorship that, for a while, protected reporter Joe Klein, on whose chart-topping novel the movie is based. Now snugly berthed at The New Yorker as maven-in-chief on the White House (and, of late, on the Clinton marriage), Klein catapulted himself to national celebrity when, after repeated wide-eyed denials, he acknowledged having penned the roman a clef about Clinton's scandal-pocked run for the presidency. A wildly funny study of the mad logic of campaign politics in the media age, the novel is written with the amused savvy of the observer, the exuberant high spirits of the dedicated political animal, and the serene worldliness of a believer who also understands that a candidate's first order of business is to get elected. And like all good satire, it's thrillingly over the top, seething with skillfully overdrawn characters who bear just enough resemblance to the real-life players to titillate, and enough warts of their own to save Klein and his publisher from a stack of libel suits.

Primary Colors the movie, smoothly directed by Nichols from a well-trimmed screenplay by Elaine May, hews all too faithfully to Klein's chronicle of the campaign that moved improbably from a holding action against charges of draft-dodging and philandering to a landslide that astonished its architects (see The War Room) as much as it did those who watched from the sidelines. Told from the point of view of campaign manager Henry Burton, daintily played by the black English actor Adrian Lester as the morally fastidious grandson of a civil rights leader who's enchanted by Governor Jack Stanton's (Travolta) charisma even as he's appalled by his tactics, the movie offers a mildly sedated take on a frantic world in which crisis is routine. If nothing else, you can entertain yourself playing guess the real-life counterpart as Nichols dutifully trots you through the gallery of ill-assorted players, bound together not just by a common goal but by hostility, campaign sex and a shared addiction to crisis. The film is filled with well-crafted, witty secondary performances, notably Kathy Bates as Libby Holden, the loudmouth lesbian consultant and old friend (read: Betsey Wright) who picks up after the Stantons even as she tries to keep them honest; Larry Hagman as a Perot-like independent who enters the race late and poses Jack his biggest ethical dilemma; Billy Bob Thornton, mercifully held in check even though he's playing James Carville; and a very funny Rob Reiner, doubtless drawing on his years as a Catskill kid to play the genial, clueless Florida host of the radio talk show Schmooze With Jews, who blithely plies the gov with irrelevant questions while a rival candidate on hold goes into cardiac arrest.

It's the principal players who are the problem, though not for want of technique. Travolta wasn't Nichols' first choice to play Governor Jack Stanton (Tom Hanks, an accredited FOB, passed on the role), but for purposes of simulation, he's ideal. The actor can "do" anybody on demand, and Clinton, oversized in everything from his jeans to his boundless appetites for grub, sex, power and recognition - possibly in that order - is more easily done than most. Moderately porked out and sporting a Southern twang that occasionally slips into black jive, Travolta has our glorious leader nailed, if only on the surface. Not that he has to try too hard, for he and his subject are a perfect match, populist charmers to the manner born, glad-handing with instinctive radar for the psychology of their audiences, gobbling up admiration with guileless delight. By turns amorous and sheepish around his wife, who runs him with an iron discipline, Travolta's Clinton is pretty close to the mark of Klein's jaundiced, admiring portrayal.

The First Lady is another story. In the novel, Susan Stanton is a castrating bitch whom Klein clearly respects for her intelligent strength, her loyalty to her bizarre friends and her genuine commitment to her vision of the good society. Like Travolta, Emma Thompson is a born mimic who gives effortless accent. She has the requisite WASP-y bearing and direct gaze to replicate Hillary, but the actress is way too nice for steely resolve. When Susan slaps Jack's face after the first bimbo erupts, you can practically feel Thompson suppressing a wince. Evidently Nichols winced too, for the novel's passionless one-night stand between Susan and campaign manager Henry ended up on the cutting-room floor.

Eviscerated by circumspection, Primary Colors pads along in its bedroom slippers, mildly funny where the novel is uproarious, equivocal where the novel is blunt, responsible where it should be cheeky. Nichols, mimetic to a fault, misses Klein's energetic ambivalence, his intent both to roast and appreciate this massively contradictory couple, at once true believers and hardened pros, and as ruthless in their pursuit of power as they are dedicated to radical change. Charmed and repelled in equal measure, Klein offers up the Clintons as emblems of a generation raised on idealism and scornful of establishment hypocrisy even as it joins that establishment and faces the cesspool of political process in an age when private smut eats up more airtime than public policy. Primary Colors the novel is both a crucifixion and a benediction of that generation. Primary Colors the movie serves up a bunch of really good imitations, then rolls over and dies of good manners.

Reach the writer at etaylor@laweekly.com

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