#27 — Primary Colors (Mike Nichols, 1998)
Politics is a circus. It’s a bizarre mix of showmanship and exaggerated danger with every effort made to prop up the most artificial spectacles as if they’re the realest things in the world. It’s populated by people with outsized personalities projecting ingratiating joy, but there always seems to be a lurking hint of menace about them. It is controlled lunacy. About the only place the comparison breaks down is when P.T. Barnum’s famous evaluation of the susceptibility of the audience is invoked. A sucker born every minute? In politics, that seems a drastic underestimation. This has all long been the case in American politics, but it seemed to raise to a new level in the lead up to the 1992 presidential election when William Jefferson Clinton and his various campaign strategists approached the twenty-four-hour news cycle as a tiger that could be tamed. They weathered scandals that would have previously led to immediate downfall and ran all the way to the White House with a victory so improbable that then Newsweek reporter Joe Klein could only render it as fiction.
Primary Colors was published in 1996 with Klein hiding behind the provocative pseudonym “Anonymous.” Clinton was recast as Jack Burton and all the familiar figures from his team had their own corresponding characters on the page. It was no secret who these people were supposed to be, so when Mike Nichols made his film version just two years later, there was no reason to be coy. As Burton, John Travolta let his midsection fill out, sported some dusty gray hairs and spoke with a southern rasp. Crucially, he used that hint of impersonation as a entryway to his performance, not a substitution for it. Boosted by Elaine May’s smart, funny screenplay, Travolta gets at the core of a man whose desire to connect with people is insatiable. This is what makes him a great politician–every person he reaches out to in a crowd feels they’ve got his attention in a way his rivals can’t match–and a faulty human being. When his philandering threatens (repeatedly) to upend his career, it is a manifestation of that same instinct.
The film is knowing and spry. It has both the information density of a documentary and the buoyant spirit of great storytelling, that bursting urge to share every new twist at just the right moment to maximize the impact. Fortunes change on the campaign day on a daily basis, and that’s only when things are moving slowly. Nichols carries the film through all the tumult with smooth precision, capturing the fun and frustration of the crazy game while also exploring the more troubling side effects, particular the way that hope and inspiration become compromise and then finally disillusionment. For the person taking it, that journey is heartbreaking and often surprisingly swift. With great depth of feeling, Nichols shows that with a wide range of characters, from the devoted political wife with steel in her veins to the impressionable idealist to the seasoned political adviser who knows full well that a campaign is a battle. As Primary Colors shows, sometimes those battles leave lasting scars.