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31 October 1998

Primarily colourless

The critics have got it wrong on Primary Colors (which opened in the UK last night), says Graham Barnfield

Charlie won medals in WW2, yet he couldn't read. So he stayed indoors all day rather than admit it. He could do anything except read, but he wasted his life. In a run-down New York school, Jack Stanton tells the tale of his illiterate uncle while tugging the heartstrings of all around. He wants to feel your pain, and you to feel his. Yet behind the tears, one eye is fixed firmly on the Democratic presidential nomination, the other on a moderately attractive teacher and the prospects of reckless casual sex. Does another Democratic presidential candidate spring to mind here?

John Travolta gives one of the best performances of his career in an unsettling impersonation of the White House's current incumbent. The pregnant pauses, the sighs, the schmaltz, bolting down junk food, the pregnant teenagers - everything we have come to associate with Slick Willie. There's even a suicide in the camp, recalling Vince Foster and the Whitewater allegations. Mike Nichols' toned-down adaptation of the 'anonymous' bestseller conjures up the heady atmosphere of 1991-92. It was taken for granted that the Gulf War would mean George Bush staying on as Commander-in-Chief. Major league Democrats like Mario Cuomo kept their powder dry for the 1996 election. A pack of second-rate figures - including a certain southern Governor - set off to reach the top of the greasy pole. One succeeded, surprising many; the GOP was reduced to a feuding rump.

Needless to say, the question of 'character' is shown as central to the political process. The insipid Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) dumps his civil rights heritage to work for Stanton, but is increasingly concerned with his chosen candidate's lack of scruples - not least when he meets Uncle Charlie, part of Stanton's political machine. By the time the excellent Larry Hagman has weighed in as squeaky clean Governor Fred Picker, it's clear that personality is everything, and that 20 years of modest misdemeanours are going to resurface on prime time TV. A former mental patient (played by Kathy Bates) and a James Carville character (Billy Bob Thornton) are there to ensure that personal problems are exploited or swept under the carpet, depending who has them.

Most commentators have drawn the conclusion that life is imitating art in a clairvoyant movie which precisely anticipated current events. Emma Thompson, restrained here as Susan Stanton, said as much at the Edinburgh premiere. 'Where's Monica' thinks the audience as they scan the faces of Stanton's disorganised campaign team in the opening scenes.

This overestimates the coherence of today's Clinton team. The smoothly-oiled machine appears to reel from crisis to crisis, saved only by the unpopularity of its antagonists - from Newt Gingrinch to Kenneth Starr. Whereas Stanton is shown manipulating adversity for political gain, a blubbing Clinton claims victimisation and pleads forgiveness. What is shown in Primary Colors as a mixture of scheming and complete control is, in reality, simple blundering into personal quagmires galore. With each new SNAFU, an Oprah Winfrey-style confession is broadcast from the White House and all is forgiven. You almost wish Clinton would spare us his personal life and show some of the naked lust for power that drives the Stantons. This would be welcome at a time when much of Primary Colors' charm rests on its jaded portrayal of politics as a process where the sacrifices aren't worth it and the machinery devours its young.

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