Campaign Trailer

If Stanton was a real spellbinder, we might feel more conflicted about his transgressions. If we could see more evidence of his good works, then his bad works might not seem so prominent. But most of the time, he's just being a pol: putting on a yarmulke to get the Jewish vote in Florida, getting all teary-eyed and sincere in his televised primary debates, and so on. When Burton's radical journalist girlfriend (Rebecca Walker) tells him Stanton is just a "cracker who hasn't done piss-ass for the black man in his own state," there's no evidence she's mistaken. (The film never explores a great subject: the ways in which blacks allow themselves to be manipulated by white politicians.) Near the film's end, when Stanton delivers a eulogy for a fallen comrade -- whose fall he precipitated -- Nichols barely shows us the oration. We don't get to see how Stanton pulls genuine feeling from his own hypocrisy. And if we don't see this sort of thing, then what is there about this character to make us woozy? He's a spellbinder without a spell. Even the common touches surrounding Stanton come across as gross. When we see him with his face stuffed with donuts or his fingers sticky from eating ribs, he's not a down-home man of the people, he's just a big bubba.

I doubt this is the way Stanton was meant to register, but Nichols's elitism probably got the better of him. He can't connect to the life force in all that grossness. Stanton doesn't even have much of a family context; his young son pops up briefly, as does his mother (Diane Ladd), but they have almost no emotional weight. Wife Susan is the film's only family-style triumph, and that's mostly because Thompson is expert at showing how this politician's spouse balances pragmatism with rage. She's a sharpie who knows the score about her husband's philandering but also recognizes the reason to stay in the game. She can deliver a stinging slap to Stanton in full view of Burton but -- and here's what makes Thompson's performance special -- she also shows us how this woman can still remain in thrall to her husband.

There are other expert performances, including Larry Hagman's Gov. Fred Picker, who gives Stanton a dose of his own common-touch medicine, and Billy Bob Thornton's Richard Jemmons, Stanton's political adviser who fulfills the description Klein gave him in the novel: "He looked like he was sired during the love scene in Deliverance."

But Nichols never brings all these actors together into any kind of coherent social vision. Primary Colors lacks the buzz and crackle of observed experience; you never feel as if you've been plunged into the workings of a real campaign. It's a sham movie about a sham world.

Primary Colors.
Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Elaine May, based on the book by Joe Klein. Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Adrian Lester.

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