Primary Colors (1998)

(On Cable TV, November 2016) As I slowly digest the results of the 2016 American Presidential election (albeit not without a few gastric refluxes along the way), I thought that a fictional take on the 1992 Clinton campaign would soothe my nerves. Alas, no such luck: After the sheer weirdness of 2016, Primary Colors seems positively sedate even in its stew of political corruption, adultery, dirty tricks and dark secrets. People in 1998 still obviously cared about moral flaws, which is more than seems to be the case in these dark days of November 2016. Adapted from a roman à clé penned as “Anonymous” by political journalist Joe Klein, Primary Colors purports to talk about the Clinton campaign, albeit with many details scrubbed and others pushed well past the point of fiction. John Travolta shows up with a full-on Bill Clinton impersonation, even though there isn’t as clear a Hillary analogue in Emma Thompson’s character. The protagonist of the story is a young political operative who (as with seemingly every political operative drama since, from The Ides of March to Knife Fight to Our Brand is Crisis) has a crisis of conscience after discovering his candidate’s darkest secret. It’s handled decently enough, with twists and turns that justify the fiction moniker. Characters and actors of note are Kathy Bates as an unexpectedly idealistic battle-axe, Larry Hagman as a veteran politician, Billy Bob Thornton as a redneck strategist (compare his character with the one he plays in Our Brand is Crisis) and Adrian Lester as the overshadowed protagonist … among many other notable names in smaller performances. As a fictionalized look in the primary campaign process, Primary Colors is not bad—and even after nearly twenty years remains just as interesting. But it may not be as effective right now, as I look at the headlines and wonder when we veered off in this absurd alternate reality. Hopefully it’ll look a bit wilder in four years.

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