On iPlayer: Primary Colors

Adding credence to the notion that any rich schmuck can be president, John Travolta plays a Democratic candidate in this 1998 political satire.

Adapted from an anonymously published novel about the Clintons (optioned for over $1 million), Primary Colors very openly deals with Bill’s 1992 campaign. It follows governor “Jack Stanton” and his wife (Emma Thompson) on the campaign trail, and depicts a time when scandal actually harmed a candidate’s chances. On the rocky road to the White House (not the marshmallow kind, although there is a three-minute shot of a Krispy Kreme shop that surely funded those screen rights) we meet a colourful cast of campaign staff, including a self-proclaimed redneck strategist (Billy Bob Thornton) and a formerly institutionalised advisor (Kathy Bates). No Russians though.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May reunite to direct and write (respectively) a pointed political drama, a cynical, real-world antidote to the previous year’s “real-life pilot plays the president” movie Air Force OneThe film dredges the “When they go low, we go high” myth with none of the optimism found in the comparable work of Aaron Sorkin (except Allison Janney does show up), painting the Clintons as sincere yet ruthlessly ambitious. Travolta’s turn is so uncanny it’s almost disturbing, and since Pulp Fiction co-star Samuel L. Jackson played the commander-in-chief in Big Game it must be time for Bruce Willis to portray a president. Presumably Gerald Ford or Lex Luthor.

The result is more cinematic than last year’s similarly themed The Front Runner, its writing sharp and satire chilling (one sex scandal involves someone called Cashmere McLeod, which sounds eerily like Stormy Daniels). It bombed at the box office, probably because if anyone wanted to watch people discuss Bill Clinton’s sex life they could just turn on their TVs.

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