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Sex, politics and dust-busting

Primary_colors260pix.jpgWhen I watched "The Ides of March" (2011) early in this year, it took me back to my memories with Mike Nichols' "Primary Colors" (1998), which already told us almost everything the former wanted to tell. When I watched it in 1999, it looked like a sarcastic story inspired by Bill Clinton's first presidential election campaign in 1992, but now the movie looks more like a timeless political comedy drama which understands a lot about how politicians alternatively dazzle and disappoint us with their better and worse sides.

Nevertheless, when we look at Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in the movie, we cannot help but think about Clinton. His white hair, his casual mannerism, his warm empathy, his energetic charisma, and his southern accent all clearly point out whom he is based on. The movie does not specify which state of governor Stanton is, but I am sure you have already figured it out for yourself.


According to Wikipedia, there are also many other fictional characters inspired by the real-life figures in "Primary Colors: a Novel of Politics," the novel the movie is based on. The writer of this roman à clef is still officially "Anonymous" at present, but, around the time when the movie came out, everyone came to know that the writer in question was Joe Klein, who said in the after-note in the recent edition of his book that he chose to use an anonym just because he wanted his first novel to be judged objectively by his peers, and he did not intendf to throw a cheap shot at Clinton behind his book.


While I can accept that Klein just got a nice idea about the story of a larger-than-life politician a la "All the King's Men," I think Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary were the irresistible source of inspiration to him while he wrote the novel. After all, Mr. and Mrs. Clinton were smart and energetic people eager to do something for their country, and they were very entertaining as the residents of the White House to everyone including their political opponents. In fact, it is no wonder that many notable Hollywood movies about an American president were released during Clinton's presidency; we watched Presidents appearing on the screen as an average guy replacing a real one, a romantic comedy hero, a prime murder suspect, a criminal attempting to get away with a murder case, a leader against a massive alien attack, a fighter against terrorists, an unseen man behind the outrageous conspiracy for covering his possible sex scandal, and a cunning and practical politician determined to have the first female vice president in the American history--and we surely had an interesting time with that trend at the theaters.


"Primary Colors" was made during that fun time, and it is one of the better ones. The movie observes Governor Stanton and his dramatic election campaign process through the eyes of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a famous civil rights activist's grandson who happens to get on Stanton's bumpy political ride around its beginning. Burton is a smart young man who has been trying to bring changes into the politics, but his idealism has been frustrated by the absence of progress, so he decides to choose a more practical approach through Stanton, who looks like a right guy he can work for.


Although he initially hesitates to participate in Stanton's campaign, Burton soon finds himself quickly swept into the center of the dizzying political maelstrom as he is attracted by Stanton's undeniable radiant charm. When Burton meets Stanton for the first time in the opening scene, Stanton is visiting a class for illiterates at a public library in New York. He listens to one sad, heartfelt personal story from one of the attending students, and then he movingly replies to that student and others in the class with the story about one of his uncles. I am rather skeptical about that story though he does have an "Uncle Charlie," but he delivers it so well that he adds extra elevation to a big emotional moment in the room, and everyone loves to talk with him--including a female teacher who later has a private talk with him in his hotel room.


Not long after being impressed by him, Burton is quickly hired by Stanton even before he clearly makes up his mind. He sees how difficult his job is on his very first day at the campaign headquarters; Stanton is not famous or popular yet, and Burton must find ways to convince the Democratic voters that they should choose Stanton as the nominee for the upcoming presidential election. The campaign headquarter looks pretty disorganized at first, but it gets ordered under his supervision, though there are some eccentric people coming into the campaign as Stanton's inner circle members. One of them is Richard Jemmons, played by Billy Bob Thornton who looks as distinctive as James Carville, and he gives a naughty "snake show" to one of the female workers. To everyone's relief, she tactfully responds to his rudeness.


As they dramatically go up and down during the Democratic presidential primaries, the circumstances become more unpredictable to everyone in the campaign, mainly thanks to Stanton's moral flaws, and they soon face troubles not so different from their counterparts in real life. Everyone including his wife Susan (Emma Thompson) senses that sex scandals will be seized upon by their opponents at any time to ruin Stanton's chance for the nomination. If the unclean facts in his private life are bound to come out, they must know them before their opponents hand them to the reporters hungry for the latest scandals, so they really need someone good at handling Stanton's dirt.


That is how the Stantons' longtime colleague Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) comes into this busy picture as a fixer, or a "dust buster" as she calls herself. As a brash, zealous, and unstable woman ready to do anything for her close friends, Bates gives a juicy comic performance through the role she is destined to play. In one memorable scene, she storms into a sleazy lawyer's office, and it is clear to everyone in the office that Libby is the unstoppable force of nature who will not go away unless she gets what she needs for fixing Stanton's latest problem. (Klein actually had Bates in his mind when he created that character, although many people thought Libby was based on Betsey Wright.)


But even to her, there is a line she is reluctant to cross, and the movie raises several serious primary questions on politics in its comic story. We all know it is impossible to remain clean in the mud field called politics, but how far can they go in the name of political victory and following rewards? And how much can they remain true to their ideals and principles during that process? And can we vote for them while recognizing their grey morality area and human flaws?

They are not easy questions to answer, and the movie does not simplify its characters' circumstances. When Libby tries a crucial test on the Stantons later in the story, she is deeply disappointed by their quick decision on certain negative information about their major opponent, but I can also see that the Stantons have a good point on their decision. So far, they have been playing fair with him, and they can continue to do that, but what if he is nominated instead of Stanton and then the Republican Party digs up that fact? Yes, it is against their principles, but shouldn't they do that dirty job in advance before it can damage their party?

Elaine May's adapted screenplay retains the humor in the novel while making its caricatures a little more human and complex through nice small details. There are many funny moments in the film, and I especially enjoyed a tickling private meeting between Susan, Burton, Jemmons and other staff members where they try to grasp the meaning behind Jemmons' vague metaphors (please don't ask me about what the hell dove or boar or forest are really supposed to mean). We can laugh at them for their silliness, but their human sides are revealed along with good laughs, and there is an unexpectedly poignant moment when Libby reveals an idealistic heart behind her cutthroat behaviors to her less seasoned junior during their bitter private talk.

Although he looks as if he were mimicking Bill Clinton on the surface, John Travolta gives us a vivid portrait of a compelling human being born to be a political animal with the right stuff--and some wrong stuff. It cannot be denied that Stanton is a weak, impatient, and childish man who cannot easily say no to the bimbos attracted toward him (I remember one guy's amused remark on Clinton: "Why did he always get involved with cheap girls?"), but he is also a tenacious politician full of energy, ambition, and visions. He influences everyone around him even when he is not around them, and that aspect is amplified by Travolta's enjoyable presence, which infectiously permeates into every minute of the movie.


Stanton really listens to people and sincerely wants to make the world better for them, and we see his better sides especially when he gives a speech to a group of unemployed factory workers. He gives them no false hope, and he honestly tells them they should go through the inevitable hard change for themselves, and he promises his future government will support them. On the whole, he ultimately comes to us a slick but charming politician with real ideas who is far more reliable than a Mitt Romney.

Travolta is surrounded by performers providing different colors to the story. While interestingly not imitating Hilary Clinton in her sympathetic performance, Thompson plays Mrs. Stanton as a strong-willed woman with equal political ambition who has endured lots of things from her imperfect husband. He continues to betray her not only as a husband but also as a political partner, but, no matter how much she is hurt and angry, she keeps standing firmly by him, probably because she knows (1) they should stick together in their rocky journey for their mutual political survival and (2) he will never leave her in spite of his constant infidelity.

While Bates always steals the scene whenever she commandingly appears on the screen, Billy Bob Thornton, Maura Tierny, and Paul Guilfoyle also add flavors to the busy process of campaign as the core staff members of the campaign, and Larry Hagman is a decent elder politician very reluctant about his sudden participation in a political game with Stanton. Adrian Lester is comparatively colorless as the observer of the story, but his approach is appropriate as an observant hero who gets enlightened more by his impressive experience with Stanton and his campaign. Burton may compromise his standard by changing his mind around the ending, but the movie does not judge his decision or Stanton's persuasion behind it. He becomes disillusioned with Stanton as much as his co-workers, but he and others are eventually paid back as much as they invest, and everyone is happy in the end.


"Primary Colors" is an entertaining human comedy with sharp insights about the politics in our reality. It shows us that some kind of people live for being in politics, and it also reminds us that some of them are quite interesting people to know. They are such inspiring energizers that the other people surrounding them are held and swept by the excitement created by them as their campaign is approaching the finish line, and it is certainly never boring to work for them regardless of the final result. They are not perfect, but, as they say in South Korea, nobody is without dirt in his pocket, and sometimes they do deserve our votes as the people pushing the society forward, despite their flaws magnified by the ruthless system they belong to.


Although it did not succeed well at the box office when it came out, the movie is frequently remembered as one of the interesting movies about election, and Bill and Hillary are continuing their illustrious careers as an influential political couple in their party while remembered by many for their exciting and productive years at the White House during the 1990s. I know some of you may not agree with my opinion, but, folks, as Klein noted later in the recent documentary about Clinton's presidency, it was a lot of fun to watch their domestic/political drama at the White House, wasn't it?


SEONGYONG CHO was born in Jeon-ju, South Korea. He is a graduate of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) in Dae-jeon, where he makes weekly pilgrimages to the local multiplex. He began his blog in 2008 and has since written hundreds of film reviews (in Korean) while still managing to find time for books, music, exercise (usually treadmill and swimming), and corresponding with Ebert and fellow bloggers.

Seongyong Cho

Seongyong Cho writes extensively about film on his site, Seongyong's Private Place.

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