Director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May’s adaptation of the novel Primary Colors—Joe “Anonymous” Klein’s thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign—was a hot topic when it came out in 1998, because it arrived right around the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and pundits were sure that the combination of the scandal and the movie’s depiction of a Clinton-like lecher would sink the president. Instead, the general public didn’t seem that bothered by Clinton’s sex-life, nor were they all that interested in seeing John Travolta and Emma Thompson play versions of Bill and Hillary. Primary Colors did middling box office, and isn’t talked about that much today, but it’s actually a crackling political dramedy, benefitting from May’s witty dialogue, Nichols’ gift for choreographing actors’ movements, and a great supporting cast that includes Maura Tierney, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Adrian Lester (whose Stephanopoulos-styled aide is the audience’s surrogate). The farcical plot overshadows a deeper consideration of what it takes to be a successful politician, but the performances are witty and compelling, with Thompson and Travolta moving beyond mere impersonation to become fully realized characters. And Nichols and May develop some cogent observations about the level of political discourse in this country, where sound-bite quips and standup monologues are taken seriously as political barometers. Primary Colors airs on HBO at 3:30 a.m. Eastern.
September 17, 2014 newsreel