Film Scouts Reviews

"Primary Colors"

by Karen Jaehne

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People like to call "Primary Colors" a roman-a-clef - literary coinage to describe a novel (the roman) that is a key (clef) to some public mystery. If there's a clef in all this, it's the book deal.

To properly understand the movie, you must understand what a bonanza a book deal represents to anybody with any possible connection to celebrity. You'd have to be living in Antarctica not to know that editors and publishers fork over millions for smell-and-tell books, and there is a particularly strong odor surrounding Bill Clinton. With Princess Di gone, Bill's become the most salable celebrity in sight.

The film "Primary Colors" represents the *ne plus ultra* of deals: Joe Klein was a good journalist. He had the kind of values and principles that Clinton, apparently, admired, because the Clinton election team brought Klein in to watch the process, to report from the inside on what a great President we were getting. Oops, make that Presidential Couple. To be sure, Joe and Bill cottoned to each other. (I can't help but wonder if Hillary felt her hand being bitten?)

With the kind of access Joe was getting, he could write Newsweek columns to support White House policy - and still have time to write a novel. He's not the most creative writer to come along, so he just borrowed from life and changed the names to protect the innocent. His most protective gesture, however, was to attribute his book to Anonymous, perhaps in anticipation of its notoriety but probably to protect his status as the journalist with the best access to the Oval Office.

Klein's book was very popular, and some of its biggest fans were in Hollywood, so the film rights were sold, the most lucrative deal possible. This turned Joe Klein himself into a commodity and obviated any need to be a crummy journalist. He made a career move to the "New Yorker," where literary pretense was put in its place by Tina Brown long ago. Joe Klein didn't need to be anonymous any longer.

The brilliance of Klein's career was not lost on other Friends of Bill. The size of the bucks going to Anonymous would turn most anybody into an aspiring author, especially the many women who were beginning to long for the spotlight occupied by Paula Jones. But they'd have to have something pretty juicy to top Joe Klein's book. They tried, and then to top these gals, along comes Klein/Mike Nichols (another FOB) with a serious satire of Bill Clinton, which takes his dimensions, his mannerisms and his body language and transforms them into a big putz of a childlike politician who feels people's pain because his feelers are stronger than his brain.

It is difficult to watch "Primary Colors" without thinking of what it has spawned: a nation in search of a book deal. Meanwhile, one hears that Joe Klein is wrestling with God, searching his soul and studying religion. Is this the result of a guilty conscience? For betraying confidences? Or is it just that once you've had the megabook deal, the movie adaptation directed by supremo Mike Nichols starring Hollywood's biggest talent, and even a political scandal to oil the hinges on the film's opening... well, pity your poor deity. He's all you have left to pick on.

I think so much has been said about "Primary Colors" that the movie cannot be judged with any degree of neutrality. And as with everything else, the movie's fate and our bad conscience or the misbegotten ideals of our generation are held up for scrutiny in a long monologue by Kathy Bates, playing the future President's most loyal supporter, now disgusted with the way we've all grown up to be just like all the other grownups. Particularly the ones in Washington, D.C. So here's another thing we can blame on Bill Clinton.

You can only watch so many Friends of Bill howl and whine before you finally pack it in and start liking the guy. "Primary Colors" leaves me with a bitter taste - a little like getting a few leaves of marijuana stuck on your lip for sucking on the doobie instead of inhaling. The movie represents the kind of opportunism that should embarrass people - and is even more shameful for not achieving even that.

What does "Primary Colors" do that, say, "Wag the Dog" doesn't do? It points the finger at the Oval Office where the President is made all too lumpy and puppy-dog-like by John Travolta, whereas "Wag the Dog" gives us the point of view of a very busy tail. So busy it can't even see the dog it's wagging. Because we never actually sight the President in "Wag the Dog," we are free to put in the President of our choice. It's called structured absence (in criticism), and it means the work of art has created a round hole for you to try to plug your square peg into.

There's a lot of hole-plugging in politics these days: it's a game everyone can play. I just don't believe that the team who made "Primary Colors" built us a very creative playground.

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