PPM Picks is a weekly feature offering film, book, or music recommendations from our staff. The links provided in the article go to product listings on Amazon. Purchases made using these links support the Presidential Pet Museum. That said, we were not paid to review or promote any of the items mentioned. We just legitimately like them.
It’s difficult to find a good, even-handed movie about an American President. In the early days of Hollywood, presidents were often portrayed as saintly figures destined to enhance our unique status as the Greatest Nation on Earth. Hagiographies like Young Mr. Lincoln and Wilson were the norm. After the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, movies like Secret Honor and Wag the Dog offered a much more cynical look at our executives. It’s hard to depict the complexity of American politics in 120 minutes, and, if you do, will audiences show up?
They didn’t turn out for Primary Colors, the comedy-drama starring John Travolta as a charming Southern governor running for the Democratic nomination. At the film’s release in March of 1998, we were five years into the presidency of Bill Clinton—the obvious inspiration for Travolta’s Governor Jack Stanton—and the Monica Lewinsky scandal was just about to boil over. Audiences could be forgiven for thinking they could get the same drama on the evening news. The film has largely been forgotten in the intervening years.
The shadow of the Clinton Era still looms over our society, thanks in no small part to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy. In our polarized electorate, where everyone is either a hero or an enemy depending on their party affiliation, minds have been made up and a fully-human view of our 42nd president and his wife seems an impossible dream.
Enter Primary Colors. Based on the best-selling novel by Anonymous (later revealed to be reporter Joe Klein), the films follows Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), the grandson of a civil rights icon, as he finds himself sucked into the orbit of Jack and Susan Stanton (Travolta and Emma Thompson). Jack is a charmer, a man of deep empathy who smiles broadly and squeezes your arm just so as he shakes your hand. He’s a natural campaigner. His wife Susan is a shrewd political realist who has developed s tough exterior to protect herself from the slings and arrows of political life. We know these people are a version of the Clintons, but the film doesn’t settle for cheap caricature. It digs deeper.
The events of this film are only loosely based on the 1992 Democratic primary. Yes, there is an analogue for the Gennifer Flowers scandal. Yes, the Clintons employed a brash redneck campaign strategist (James Carville, played here with zest by Billy Bob Thornton). And, yes, Bill Clinton was described by his rivals as a lightweight. But Elaine May’s dcript, like the novel, uses this framework to tell a story of personal compromise, a tale of the deals we make with ourselves as we pursue greatness. What principles are we willing to sacrifice, and where do we draw a line in the sand?
In the process, the Stantons allow us to see a more personal side of the Clintons. Viewers who’ve wonder how Hillary reacted to the news of Bill’s indiscretions or who wonder what keeps their marriage together may find some answers here. It’s all theoretical, of course, but it has the ring of truth. It’s as close as we are likely to come to the real thing. Political pros like the Clintons don’t share anything they don’t want us to see.
The passage of time has been kind to Primary Colors. More than a year after the final Clinton campaign, it plays as a snapshot of a particular moment in American political history, and an entertaining one at that. Maybe audiences are finally ready for it.