Primary Colors

on March 20, 1998 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
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   Joe Klein's controversial political novel based on the Clintons has come to the screen relatively intact but with some key compromises and omissions that mar the material.
   Set during the early '90s, "Primary Colors" is told from the perspective of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), an idealistic man who, reluctantly and then later enthusiastically, becomes part of the entourage surrounding Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a governor of an unnamed Southern state who is running for President. As one of Stanton's key advisers, he is privy to the secrets behind the candidate, which include womanizing, dissembling and outright lying.
   When "Primary Colors" sticks to Klein's book, it sings. As a satirical take on the compromises bedeviling American politics and the larger-than-life characters who mold and filter the image of the candidate, it's hysterical, as laugh-out-loud funny and as topical as "Wag the Dog." The acting, too is superb, from Emma Thompson's button-down version of Hilary to Billy Bob Thornton's deadpan riff on Clinton's Cajun troubleshooter James Carville. Kathy Bates also rises to the occasion as the bombastic, lunatic Stanton spin doctor Libby Holden. And Travolta as the petulant, irresponsible but genuinely caring and charming Jack Stanton isn't just in top form; he's the best p.r. Bill Clinton could ever hope for.
   Unfortunately, Lester doesn't fare as well in the film. The actor suffers because his character is tampered with. Klein's key scene, of a one night stand between Henry and Jack's wife, Susan, has been excised, which denies Susan some humanity and Henry some shading. And the tacked-on coda concerning Henry's decision on whether he should continue working for the Governor is now obvious instead of ambiguous. Other plot threads from the book, such as Henry's relationship with co-worker Daisy (Maura Tierney), are so pared down as to be meaningless. Preachier than it needs to be, "Primary Colors" is a simplistic movie filled with complex characters. It 's the best and worst of Hollywood in one package.    Starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson and Billy Bob Thornton. Produced and directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Elaine May. A Universal release. Comedy-drama. Rated R for strong language and sexual references. Running time: 144 min.
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