Make no mistake that Primary Colors is a satire but the film’s events are rather uncanny when it comes to similarities with the 1992 Bill Clinton campaign.
Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) signs on to manage the presidential campaign for Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta). Stanton has this charismatic attitude about the way he walks and talks. You can’t help but like the guy and want him to win! Stanton already has a strong team surrounding him, including his wife, Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson). Other advisors in Stanton’s circle include strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), spokeswoman Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and campaign chief Harold Ferguson III (Paul Guilfoyle).
With a number of real-life media cameos, the campaign deals with allegation after allegation. There is a real fear to Jack’s past going public so Libby Holden (Kathy Bates) enters the picture. With her in the fold, the campaign has a way of shutting things down before they get too bad. This is easier said than done once some of the allegations start becoming public starting with hairdresser Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides). Holden has a way of investigating and putting this allegation to an end. It’s not so easy when “Big Willie” McCollister (Tommy Hollis) comes forward with news about his daughter. This is certain doom for the campaign.
Like any campaign, the key is survival. Everything is thrown in Stanton’s direction. After barely surviving New Hampshire, the campaign heads to Florida. Nobody said running for president would be easy! The politician who said he wouldn’t go negative makes the decision to go negative against Florida Senator Lawrence Harris (Kevin Coooney). This negative attack gets shortlived once Harris suffers from a stroke and withdraws from the race. Enter former Florida Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman). But wait! He may not have the clean background that people think he has! Libby and Susan do an investigation of their own but it turns out that Libby actually has a conscience.
Even though Libby isn’t afraid of doing the dirty work for Jack, she decides to take a stand. Just when you think New Hampshire becomes a turning point, it’s what the Stantons do from here that become make or break. Either Jack plays into her hand or she may just do something drastic in response.
It’s hard to watch this film and not think about how closely it follows the events of President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. After all, Jack Stanton is an Arkansas governor running for the nation’s highest office. Not just this but with the way that Travolta plays the role, it’s as if he’s trying to be Clinton himself. Hell, Mammoth Falls could very well be a stand-in for that of Little Rock, Ark.
With the allegations against him, could Jack Stanton run for president and win today? This is the question that I keep going back to in viewing. My honest answer is that no, Stanton could not get the nomination. Travolta has a way of humanizing the politician. With the way he portrays the guy, it’s hard to really hate the guy. Yes, I believe that Stanton cheated on his wife, Susan Stanton. I think he did more than just that if I’m really being honest.
If you take away the eerie similarities to the Clinton campaign, Primary Colors serves as a fine satire in its own right.
DIRECTOR: Mike Nichols
SCREENWRITER: Elaine May
CAST: John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Adrian Lester, Maura Tierney, Paul Guilfoyle, Larry Hagman, Diane Ladd, Rob Reiner, and Kathy Bates