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Archive for Thursday, March 26, 1998

POKES FUN AT POLITICS

March 26, 1998

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Mike Nichols' ``Primary Colors'' is a timely, deft, sickeningly close-to-home portrayal of our nation's titillating political climate.

Strange, this aura surrounding ``Primary Colors.''

Movie-goers no doubt wrestled with their feelings about Mike Nichols new Beltway-based, indepth, faux-fictional film even before they stepped into the theater.

I mean, how do you prepare mentally for a film when you think it's going to feel like two hours and 20 minutes of CNN. Is this a movie, ``Dateline NBC'' or a Greek tragedy? Whatever it is, it's not exactly Hollywood escapism.

Fortunately, Mike Nichols, screenwriter Elaine May and a richly talented cast of Hollywood ``A-listers'' seem to have found the secret formula to holding a jaded public's attention, despite the filmmakers' protests to assertions that this is the real Bill and Hillary Clinton (let's not kid ourselves): Give us a sympathetic straight man (Adrian Lester), and watch him unravel like a rope attached to a rusted, sinking anchor.

Throughout, there is much to like in ``Primary Colors.'' The script is human and funny, the pacing brisk -- we can feel the claustrophobia of creating a presidential campaign by the seat of one's pants, city to city, hotel to hotel.

Furthermore, the emotional, moral and political elements are complex and charged with ironic tension.

Is Henry (Lester, a sparkling newcomer), the black grandson of a civil rights leader, being used just for his background and skin color? Is politics a thinly veiled metaphor for sex, and is everyone on this campaign addicted to both?

Does (the amusingly deadpan) Billy Bob Thornton's rajun' cajun political analyst (a la James Carville) evil or just shrewd? (FYI: Keep an eye out for his KU basketball shirt).

Does a frustrated and put-upon Mrs. Stanton (an always excellent Emma Thompson) put up with the constant philandering simply because she wants to be the first lady, or is she an outright martyr?

And is Kathy Bates' dirt-mongering campaign-ite truly crazy, or is she the only sane one in the bunch?

Most of all, though, it's the personal moments with Travolta's Gov. Stanton that are the most hypnotic, and not just because Travolta has utterly nailed the squishy, warm, devious glad-handedness of the Clinton we all know and love/loathe.

No, it is because all of us, from his most spirited and optimistic proponents to his most venomous critics, yearn for a quiet moment with our befuddled, media-saturated leader. We are tired of the forced denials, the lawyer bickering, the headline arm wrestling.

We just want him to look us in the eye and say, ``Yes, I screwed up. Sorry about that. Could I have your forgiveness?''

Of course, he might not get it. And Nichols doesn't really offer it.

This is, after all, the way things are done these days. The modern political process requires a measure of duplicity. But just as Henry, we all want to believe.

Only this is a man, and a movie, with tons of baggage.

The film is based on the book ``Primary Colors'' by Anonymous, which became the subject of controversy for months after it became a big hit. Who on earth wrote this thing? Just how much access did they have to the First Couple? Is all of this garbage true? Just how much embellishing was perpetrated here?

Eventually, the author was revealed as Joe Klein, longtime political analyst for Newsweek.

And it's not like we are truly shocked by any of the assertions in the book, or the movie. We -- the American people ``we'' -- are simply getting tired of trying to figure out just what is fact and what, if anything, is fiction.

This much we know: Bill/Gov. Stanton likes his women; Hillary/Susan Stanton is too dedicated to her politics to raise a public stink about it; and to own the world, you have to sell your soul.

Amazing, it seems, that ``Primary Colors'' is a load of fun anyway.

-- Matt Gowen is a full-time reporter for the Journal-World.

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