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Primary Colors

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"I've had blind dates with women I've known more about than I know about Clinton." Thus spoke James Carville, the war-room mastermind behind Bill Clinton's march toward the presidency, during the early part of the 1992 campaign. If Carville had it all to do over again, he might come up with something other than blind dates to compare President Clinton to. Then again, he might not. For a blind date is turning out to be the perfect metaphor for our on-again, off-again relationship with the man from Hope. An awkward evening poised between promise and promiscuity, Clinton's tenure in the White House has left us asking the same question we asked the moment we first laid eyes on him: "Who is he?"

Is he the president who feels our pain? Or is he the president who leaves us feeling pained? Is he nothing but a hound dog? Or is he being hounded from office, like a dog? Is he sincere, but not honest? Honest, but not sincere? Is it possible he lies so well that he believes it himself? And, if he believes it himself, is it a lie?

And what about Bill and Hillary? What's the state of their union? A political partnership? A textbook case of co-dependency? A blind date that turned into a blind marriage? After following their every move for the last five years--not to mention sending a special prosecutor rifling through their underwear drawer--it's amazing how little we know about the Clintons.

Actually, what's amazing is how little we understand them. Wiggling like worms, they keep slipping through our fingers. But that may be about to change. Perhaps the chief virtue of Primary Colors, Mike Nichols' often-enjoyable film à clef about the Clintons' rise to power, is that it offers us an interpretation of history we're still living through. It gives us something to chew on, digest or spit back out. Though set during the '92 primaries, the movie has the inky smell of having been ripped straight from this morning's headlines. Like Wag the Dog, it seems to be right on top, if not slightly ahead, of what we used to call current events. For a big-budget Hollywood movie, that's nothing short of extraordinary.

So was Joe Klein's 1996 novel, from which Nichols and his old partner-in-crime, Elaine May, have taken the movie's story and a great deal of its dialogue. A CBS commentator and writer for Newsweek at the time, Klein took the precaution of changing his name to Anonymous--a glorified publicity stunt that had the effect of both turning Primary Colors into Washington's favorite parlor game since Deep Throat and obscuring the book's literary merit. Then again, the book's literary merit was due in part to its anonymity. Bristling with insider info, it read like an exposé by a disgruntled member of the Clinton campaign. But if that's all the book did, it would already have been tossed into the dustbin of history.

What Klein has done is capture the messy greatness of Bill Clinton, as well as the great messiness of our response to him. Using Robert Penn Warren's famous novel about Huey Long, All the King's Men, as a template, Klein both toasts and roasts a man who seems bent on seducing the entire world. Warren's Willie Stark won elections by hook or crook. Klein's Jack Stanton wins them with miles of smiles (and tears shining through those smiles). But the effect is the same: a man we couldn't say no to. Mythologizing only slightly, Klein portrays Clinton as a political candidate with unprecedentedly high positives and precedentedly high negatives--true presidential timber crawling with termites.

It's a Shakespearean conception, not unlike the one that drove Oliver Stone's Nixon; except, where Stone lifted Nixon into the realm of tragedy, Nichols lowers Clinton into the realm of comedy. As for Klein's book, it's closer to a tragicomedy, but Primary Colors the movie doesn't have the dramatic heft of Primary Colors the novel. Nor does it want to have it, apparently. "What I liked about [the book]," Nichols recently told The New York Times, "is that it's secretly 'Seinfeld.' It's about pals on the road during a campaign." I suspect even Nichols doesn't really believe that, or the movie wouldn't keep doing something "Seinfeld" has never done--lunge in the general direction of our tear ducts.

The movie opens with a tear-jerking scene that even had me wiping my eyes. It's early in the campaign, and John Travolta's Stanton is up in Harlem, trying to cough up some name recognition. Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the son and grandson of famous civil rights leaders, is there as well. A disillusioned political strategist, Henry's been asked to join the Stanton team. But he's ready to say no until he witnesses an amazing spectacle. In an all-but-abandoned library, a dyslexic man (Mykelti Williamson, in a terrific little set piece) describes how learning to read saved his life. When he's through talking, Henry's in tears, and so is Stanton, who launches into an improbably appropriate story about his own Uncle Charlie.

A masterpiece of real or faked emotion, Stanton's performance will have Clinton himself reaching for his dog-eared copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People. So what if Uncle Charlie, whom Henry subsequently meets, won't back up the story? And so what if the attractive librarian later comes tumbling out of Stanton's hotel room? Henry, who's part George Stephanopoulos, part Joe Klein, buys in. And Primary Colors is about how much it costs him to buy in and whether it's worth it. As in the book, Henry is a blank page waiting to be written on by Jack and Susan (Emma Thompson) Stanton, who immediately start sharpening their pencils.

As a woman who has to watch her husband trip over his own feet--not once, but several times--on the way to the White House, Thompson is immensely enjoyable. In fact, I had to get all the way home before I realized she hadn't told me anything I didn't already know about our superbly complicated First Lady. Travolta's performance is perhaps even less revealing--a dead-on impersonation that, like so many dead-on impersonations, seems rather impersonal. Could it be that Bill Clinton is a better actor than John Travolta? (He's certainly better at playing Bill Clinton.) Watching Travolta, I kept thinking of those cartoon characters with an angel perched on one shoulder and a devil perched on the other.

So, does he listen to the angel or the devil? Sideswiped by the draft thing, the drug thing and the woman thing, Stanton refuses to go negative on his long as he's climbing in the polls. But, after the Mount Vesuvius of bimbo eruptions--a black teenager who claims to be carrying his child--Jack and Susan start to change their minds, and the movie turns into a morality play about means and ends. Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), Stanton's former chief of staff, is brought in to dig up dirt on Gov. Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), a Perot-like figure who enters the race when the front-runner has a heart attack, and she comes back with a wheelbarrow of the stuff. Will the Stantons use it?

That question might mean more to us if the movie itself meant more to us. But Nichols has his own means-and-ends problem: He wants us to laugh all the way through and then take the movie seriously. Instead, we're caught somewhere in between. Primary Colors is a little too sedate for comedy, not quite sedate enough for drama. It limns the surfaces of the Clinton presidency while avoiding the seemingly unfathomable depths. And yet, like the Clintons, it's always watchable, often moving and sometimes stirring. Nichols paints a political landscape in which the vision thing has succumbed to the television thing, promises have turned into compromises. Who could survive in such an environment?

Who do you think?

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