History is still working out what to make of the eight years of the Clinton-Gore presidency. So, in a way, it is odd to have a movie made about that time that was released while it was still going on. Most of what was rumored to have happened during the Kennedy years didn’t begin to surface until long after the fact, but in the days of the 24 hour news cycle people are taking their retrospectives with increasingly less ‘retro’ every day.In 1996 a small phenomenon hit the publishing world in the form of a book called Primary Colors. It told the story of a Southern Governor form Arkansas who charms his way to the top of his field and takes the Presidential nomination against all odds. And it sold. I mean SOLD like Harry Potter for grownups (Although since I’m a grownup who reads Harry Potter perhaps the analogy is moot). It was a gently salacious look at a world rarely glimpsed by the general public. Mostly, though, it was a sort of sudden attack of voyeurism since the subject was very much in the public eye. The fact that the Stantons were cut from the ‘Bill & Hill’ cloth was the very definition of an open secret.
The film deviates from its source not one jot; same story, same characters, and only very minor cutting to condense time. Watching it when it first came out was sort of like the scene in Spaceballs that finds Dark Helmet fast-forwarding through a copy of Spaceballs to find out what happens next.
The story follows a young (but already jaded by the process) political operative named Henry Burton as he is quite literally pulled into the swirling vortex of charisma that the Stantons are throwing off. He goes from dispassionate seen-it-all employee all the way to a fervent believer. This is an important distinction in the world of the film. While an operator will usually remain aloof using his principles as a mere feeler in getting the job done, a zealot believes all of the show. Consequently, a true believer will get hurt by the inevitable fallibility of a person, while a true political animal tends to escape with his worldview unshaken.
The problem is that Stanton (John Travolta) is the kind of Kennedy-esque candidate who tends to inspire this kind of behavior in people. So, as we become more wrapped up in his personality, we are given the corresponding access to the selfish twit that lives inside the great man.The movie suffers a bit from trying to be all things to all people. The quibbling little details that were overlooked in the novel because of the detailed account of the political process get blown up due to story condensation. The performances are sound if somewhat surface; again, this comes from having too many characters portrayed. If the hand that was turned toward adapting the source material had been a little bit surer, the movie would have been a minor classic. As it stands it is an interesting picture of the beginning of the era of ‘irrational exuberance’ and the brilliant political mind that got mired in his own humanity.