[Screen It]


(1998) (John Travolta, Adrian Lester) (R)

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Drama: An idealistic young man joins a southern governor's campaign for the presidency and must deal with the issues of less than reputable campaign practices and allegations of the governor's sexual improprieties.
Henry Burton (ADRIAN LESTER) is an idealistic young black man who works on Capitol Hill. The grandson of a Civil Rights leader, Henry is a smart political strategist. For that reason he draws the attention of Jack Stanton (JOHN TRAVOLTA), a little known, but progressive governor of a small southern state who is now running for President. Stanton wants Henry to join his team as they criss-cross states during the primaries, and the young man, who desperately wants to work for someone who can make a difference, finally agrees after falling under the governor's charm.

Thrust into the middle of the action, he meets Stanton's wife, Susan (EMMA THOMPSON), his steadfastly loyal spouse who remains that way despite allegations of the governor's infidelities. To cover those problems, the Stanton team is made up of several "specialists" and consists of campaign manager Howard Ferguson (PAUL GUILFOYLE), and Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), a self-proclaimed redneck and brilliant spin doctor. Then there's Libby Holden (KATHY BATES), the tough, and openly gay trouble shooter, Daisy (MAURA TIERNEY) the campaign media advisor, who begins a relationship with Henry, and Lucille Kaufman (CAROLINE AARON), an old friend of the Stantons.

As Stanton's team makes their way through the primaries, they must contend not only with other candidates, such as former governor Freddy Picker (LARRY HAGMAN), but also with sexual allegations aimed at Stanton that may just undo his team's loyalty and his chances of winning the primary.

If they're fans of someone in the cast or of the world of politics, they might. Preteens, however, will have little or no interest in the film.
For strong language and sexual references.
  • As a side note, nearly all of the characters heavily swear.
  • JOHN TRAVOLTA plays the presidential candidate with well-intentioned motives, but who's hampered by his sexual infidelity.
  • ADRIAN LESTER plays the idealistic young man who becomes disillusioned with the political campaign process, and has a little seen affair with a fellow staffer.
  • EMMA THOMPSON plays the governor's wife who must deal with both her husband's infidelities and allegations of others.
  • BILLY BOB THORNTON plays a self-proclaimed redneck and political strategist with an uncouth manner (he exposes himself to a young female staffer, etc...).
  • KATHY BATES plays an openly gay and sassy "dust buster" who's not afraid to speak her mind or do what she needs to while digging up dirt on other people.


    OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
    Talk about a case of both good and bad timing. With all of the recent attention paid to allegations of sexual misconduct in the White House, the executives at Universal Pictures are either giddy with anticipation or nervous with doubt about their latest release, "Primary Colors." What's certain is that audiences will definitely find comparisons between the "fictitious" characters in this movie and the real-life "dramatists" currently inhabiting 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

    What's uncertain is whether moviegoers will flock to this film because they can't get enough of the current scandals, or that they'll stay clear from it because they've had enough of such stories that currently permeate the press. You can bet, though, that those executives (and maybe the Chief Executive himself) won't get much sleep until a few days after the movie opens.

    Based on the best-selling novel of the same name that was written by Anonymous, a.k.a. Joe Klein, a former Newsweek columnist, the story is supposedly a fictitious tale surrounding the 1992 presidential primaries and campaign. While Klein and the filmmakers can deny that this film is mean to portray the Clintons, audiences will certainly beg to differ. Of course much of that has to do with the current sexual allegations that mirror those in the film (as well as Vietnam draft dodging, etc...), but the fact that the candidate here looks, acts, and sounds like Clinton (likewise for the candidate's wife and the current First Lady) will definitely make many moviegoers believe this is a direct examination of the current Presidency.

    Much of that obviously has to do with lucky/unlucky coincidences, and to be honest, the film focuses more on the Presidency and politics as an institution, than on any one individual man. That's easy to see since Henry, the young campaigner, is the story's main character. He's meant to represent untainted idealism, a belief that there might be a perfect candidate out there who will strive to make the country -- and world -- a better place. Unfortunately, Henry finds that such notions often come bundled with a less than perfect human being, and he learns that the political machine has no room for ideals.

    Portraying Henry is British actor Adrian Lester who makes his American film debut with this picture. Oscar winning director Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "The Birdcage") has stated that he purposefully cast a relatively unknown actor in the role and the effect of the "green" man in politics works quite well. Lester does a good job of playing the enthusiastic novice, and his hopes, doubts, and disbeliefs seem quite natural and certainly believable.

    That goes for the rest of the impressive cast as well, as many noted Oscar winning and nominated performers inhabit the film's many characters and certainly make the experience easy on the eye. Much of the attention will obviously focus on John Travolta as the President, and he does a fabulous job portraying Clinton, er -- the Chief Executive. Sporting a stylish, salt and peppery haircut, a penchant for donuts and a raspy southern accent, there's no doubt that they fashioned Stanton after the current president. The audience howled in delight when first spotting and hearing Travolta, and while the accent waned at times, Travolta is quite believable as a man with lofty notions that are nearly undermined by a ravenous libido and even worse, but clearly related allegations.

    Likewise, it's not hard to see that they fashioned Susan Stanton after Hillary Clinton. Perfectly played by Oscar winner Emma Thompson, this is a woman who is torn between her idealistic love for her husband and his future potential, and the hatred for his adulterous behavior that may just ruin her belief in him. One particular scene shows Mrs. Stanton "standing" by her man during an interview discussing the sexual allegations (sound familiar?), but once the camera's red tally light goes dim, she forcefully throws his hand -- that she so lovingly held during the interview -- aside as if she couldn't stand another moment of touching him.

    The supporting cast is very strong as well with Billy Bob Thornton playing a hilariously fashioned political strategist and self-proclaimed redneck. After being confronted by Henry (who's black) about being a redneck, Thornton's character responds by saying, "I'm blacker than you are. I've got some slave in me. I can feel it." In another scene, he gingerly tries to explain Stanton's sexual allegation problems to Susan by using some hilarious metaphors in a very funny scene.

    Equally as good, and perhaps giving the strongest performance, is Kathy Bates as the "dust buster" who's continually called upon to solve her old friends' problems. Openly gay and not afraid to speak her mind or act in any manner necessary to get what she wants (she tells Stanton, "I wish we castrated you when we had the chance"), Libby is fun to watch and Bates delivers a performance that may earn her some award nominations down the road (as long as the movie is remembered -- it's still early in the year). Other good bits come in the smaller roles from the likes of Robert Klein, Rob Reiner and Tony Shaloub (from TV's "Wings" and the little seen but fabulous "Big Night").

    The movie itself is too long. The second half, when everything predictably begins to fall apart and the future of Stanton's candidacy looks questionable, feels very long. It also suffers from getting a bit preachy about what's right and wrong in politics, and could have used some of the humor -- that made the first half so much fun to watch -- to soften the "sermon."

    In fact, it's in that first half that Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May (who collaborated on "The Birdcage") seemingly satirize the current presidency with scenes of the candidate coming out of a bedroom with a school teacher amidst all of his team players, or the many shots of Stanton enthusiastically eating fried chicken, ribs, donuts, or other edible products. An especially funny one is seeing Travolta -- a great dancer -- as the governor who's trying to dance and doesn't care how ridiculous he looks. The audience gets the most kicks from such scenes, but all of that dries up in the second half.

    Another problem is that there are just a few too many superfluous characters that diffuse one's attention from the main players. Many of them come and go as the story progresses and that makes the film feel that it's occasionally getting a bit unwieldy. For instance, one candidate drops out for health reasons (a glimpse of Paul Tsongas, perhaps) and is replaced by another ("Dallas'" Larry Hagman) and the story often loses its momentum -- particularly toward the end -- as it makes its way up to the soapbox to preach its point about the evils in politics.

    Even so, the film is easy to watch, features some great impersonations -- I mean performances -- and has enough humor and thought-provoking moments to appease most viewers in the audience. It will obviously play well inside the Washington, D.C. beltway, but it's anyone's guess about how middle America will react. While it's not a great film, it's pretty good and the performances make it worth seeing. We give "Primary Colors" a 7 out of 10.

    Profanity and some sexual material highlight the most obvious bits of objectionable material in this film. More than 70 "f," 60 "s," and a wide variety of other words and phrases permeate the film and are used by nearly all of the major characters. While there's a great deal of focus on the governor's infidelity, most of it's implied and/or talked about, and we don't see any actual activity. Beyond that, the fact that someone commits suicide (not seen), and the general bad attitudes that often surround "dirty" politics, many of the other categories in this film have little or no objectionable material. Even so, you should take a look through the scene listings to determine if this film is okay for you, your kids, or anyone else in your home.

  • Stanton, Henry and others have beer on the table in front of them.
  • Richard and others drink.
  • Some background characters drink beer in a restaurant.
  • A friend of Libby's gives her and Henry beer.
  • Libby drinks from a flask.
  • Stanton's team celebrates with champagne.
  • Libby and Henry have drinks with another man.
  • We learn that a candidate had drug problems in the past that included marijuana and cocaine.
  • Henry briefly throws up on the side of the road.
  • A person's chest is bloody after they've committed suicide.
  • Stanton has at least one affair (and many other implied or suggested ones), but then denies having had any of them. One involves a friend's teenage daughter who claims she's pregnant from him.
  • Richard asks a female campaign worker, "Do you want to walk the snake? I've got a python in here." He then unzips his zipper and presumably pulls out his penis (not seen), to which the woman replies, "Gee, I've never seen one that old before."
  • Stanton tells stories to voters that turn out not to be true -- he uses them just in an attempt to get votes.
  • It's reported that Stanton -- many years earlier -- got out of jail by calling a Senator and then getting the mayor to expunge his record.
  • It turns out someone illegally taped a phone conversation, edited it, and then presented it as proof of Stanton's sexual improprieties.
  • Various people make up lies or dig up hidden secrets in attempts to discredit the opposing candidate.
  • None.
  • Handgun: Used by Libby to make a man admit to having altered some tapes.
  • Handgun: Used by a person to commit suicide.
  • Phrases: "Plugging," "Get laid," and "Screwed" (all sexual), "Bitch" (Libby calls another woman that), "Cajones" and "Nuts" (testicles), "Candy ass," "Bastard," "Screwed up," "Jack ass," "Suck," "Bimbo," "Sh*t for brains," "Pissed off," "Slut," "Moron," "Fart," "Turd," and "Scumbag."
  • A person commits suicide (not seen).
  • None.
  • None.
  • None.
  • At least 72 "f" words (7 used sexually, 1 used with "mother"), 63 "s" words, 3 slang terms for male genitals (the "c," "d," and "p" words), 1 slang term for female genitals (the "c" word), 13 asses (4 using "hole"), 10 hells, 9 S.O.B.'s, 8 damns, 3 craps, and 16 uses of "G-damn," 7 uses of "God," 4 uses each of "Jesus," "Jesus Christ," "Oh God," and "Oh my God," 2 uses of "Christ," and 1 use of "For Christ's sakes" as exclamations.
  • We briefly see a schoolteacher's underwear as her skirt flies up when she falls down.
  • We see Henry's girlfriend in her underwear.
  • Stanton and a schoolteacher come out of a bedroom and he's buttoning his shirt, implying that they just had sex.
  • While trying to appease Susan, Stanton puts his arms around her and puts his hands on her clothed breasts.
  • Richard asks a female campaign worker, "Do you want to walk the snake? I've got a python in here." He then unzips his zipper and presumably pulls out his penis (not seen), to which the woman replies, "Gee, I've never seen one that old before."
  • Stanton asks Henry on the phone if there's a chance he (Henry) could "get laid," and comments that he doesn't want Henry to be "too horny to concentrate" (on business).
  • There are many allegations of Stanton having sex with various women to which Libby comments, "He's poked his p*cker in some sorry trash bins." Later, an old friend shows up who claims that his teenage daughter is pregnant by Stanton.
  • We see Henry in bed with Daisy (nothing's happening, but we see an ever-so-brief glimpse of the side of her breast). Later, however, she tells him, "We'll try some non-campaign sex and see if it (their relationship) holds up."
  • We learn that Libby is a lesbian and we see a young female campaign worker come out of her bedroom and they later kiss good-bye.
  • We hear a tape from a woman admitting to having an affair with Stanton and hear phrases such as "I get hot just thinking about it," "You think it's at all possible to get laid?" and "I'm too horny to think straight," etc...
  • Libby tells a man, "I'm gonna blow your nuts off... I'm a gay, lesbian woman -- I don't mythologize the male sexual organ."
  • A clip from a TV show has a comedian using innuendo about Stanton's alleged affair with a hairdresser, saying that he went in "looking for a little trim."
  • We learn that a candidate had sex with another man (in the past) while under the influence of cocaine.
  • Lucille smokes several times.
  • A minor character smokes.
  • The Stantons have to deal with the sexual allegations surrounding Jack, but there's no effect on any kids.
  • Whether this film is mean to portray the Clintons, or just political candidates in general.
  • Whether one should take the high road during campaigns (no mud slinging), or whether anything and everything is fair game.
  • Campaigns and politics in general, and who they serve, the candidates or the public.
  • Susan throws her keys and hits Stanton on the head to get his attention.
  • Susan slaps Stanton and later does the same to Henry.
  • Libby breaks a glass panel on a door to get into an office where she then threatens a man (who altered some tapes) with a gun that she holds to both his head and crotch.
  • A person has killed themselves with a gunshot wound to the chest.

  • Reviewed March 18, 1998

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