Film: The Big Picture - All too black and white

PRIMARY COLORS (15) DIRECTOR: MIKE NICHOLS STARRING: JOHN TRAVOLTA, EMMA THOMPSON 143 MINS

For the second time in two months, a major American film is topped and tailed by the image of the Stars and Stripes lazily furling in the breeze. But while the ending of Saving Private Ryan left you in no doubt that the image was triumphal - that America had won the right, through courage and suffering, to be taken for a decent nation on the side of the angels - the end of Primary Colors suggests a different flag-waving quality: superficiality.

It's just a larger version of all the little flags twiddled by the faithful at political rallies, with no more substance or meaning than a Hallowe'en sparkler. Is that really what Mike Nichols has been presenting us with for the last 143 minutes - a vision of politics as razzle and spin, dazzle and hum, style without integrity?

If only. If only Mr Nichols had had the courage of his hero's lack of convictions. For three-quarters of its length, this is a clever, smartly scripted, utterly absorbing safari through the jungle of modern political strategy, drawing the audience into the heart of the action, swamping them with fake urgencies and importances, halting in disarray whenever a new scandal erupts or a new media debate looms. Then, in the final half hour, Nichols runs the whole enterprise into a bog of ethical debate, where it sinks with a loud squelching noise.

Based on the book by Joe "Anonymous" Klein, which was noisily celebrated as a true-life account of the Clintons' campaign style when Bill was Governor of Arkansas (and Monica Lewinsky was still in bobbysocks), the film starts out with a marvellous breezy confidence, like the quasi-presidential handshake that becomes one of the movie's motifs. Depending on how much he likes you, or needs a favour or thinks you may be important, Governor Jack Stanton's left hand will either clasp your right hand, or your forearm, or your elbow, bicep or shoulder. (Presumably you should start to worry when he starts clutching your head).

The manipulative all-things-to-all-men grandee is played by John Travolta, whose performance amounts to a vaudeville impersonation of Clinton - the sing-song southern drawl, the bird-like twitches of the head while listening to news, as if looking for a plausible attitude to strike, the confidence in the force majeure of his charm. His mile-wide grin fills the screen a hundred times with the teeth and cheeks of a friendly horse. But Nichols also makes use of Travolta's bulk - his hambone forearms, the huge chin-dimple that resembles a squatting bullfrog on his jaw - to suggest a man bulging with "inappropriate" appetites.

When he first greets the old black chef whose daughter he is seducing, Stanton/Travolta wields a chicken drumstick like a latter-day Henry VIII. While planning his assault on the primary states, he absent-mindedly reaches for doughnuts, and ends up with sugar all over his mouth, to emphasise the honeyed insubstantiality of his speeches. Like a mendacious baby, he tells enormous fibs about his Mom and Dad in order to empathise with the voters; even the blood he submits for a paternity test is borrowed from "Uncle Charlie", an all-purpose court retainer. It's a grotesque bravura display, and you can't take your eyes off him.

The innocent Henry, an intelligent and sympathetic debut by the British actor, Adrian Lester, starts out telling his tough agit-prop girlfriend: "I've never heard a president use words like 'destiny' and 'sacrifice' without thinking: 'Bullshit.'" But like a disciple following Christ, he gives up everything (home, clothes, girlfriend) to follow the governor and finds that bullshit has its own force and momentum and, like cheap music, can make you cry real tears. As he, and we, are pulled inside Stanton's campaign machine, the camera surrounds the characters, prowling around tables, tracking around Stanton and his put-upon wife Susan (Emma Thompson) and their screaming match at the airport, stealing over Henry's hurt and soft-eyed features as Stanton invites him to join the family (and about a thousand other intimate chums) for Thanksgiving.

The film's central metaphor is encirclement, the fond hug of belonging that becomes a lethal, anacondan crush. Ambiguities abound, sometimes confusingly. In one scene, the camera approaches, with awe-struck slowness, a glowing glass-walled Krispy Kreme diner in the midst of an industrial nowhere, inside which the governor is chatting to the football-loving owner. It's clear that we're not witnessing just another bit ofschmoozing - what we're being shown by Nichols is a shrine containing the beating heart of democracy, the meeting of citizen and president as equals. It seems ludicrously idealistic, but it is rather moving. Are we seeing through Henry's eyes? Or Nichols's?

Emma Thompson is fine as the aspirant First Lady, by turns maternal, exasperated, shrewd, beguiled and actressy, as her errant husband's sexual indiscretions are revealed. Under hot camera lights, she holds his hand and says fondly: "We've been through a lot but we're still here." One second after, the director says: "Cut!", and she pulls her hand from his as if stung by a moray eel. Henry doesn't get to sleep with her (as he does in the book) but their relationship becomes a lodestone of truth in a world of bromide and spin.

Unfortunately it's quite eclipsed by the arrival of Kathy Bates as Libby Houston, the governor's former chief-of-staff, a butch, behatted, flamboyantly gay and inventively foul-mouthed deus ex machina who's hired to investigate (and conceal) Stanton's past peccadillos. Suddenly the plot hares off in a new direction. Libby and Henry check out the form of virtuous Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), a late entrant in the primaries race; they find enough dirt to keep the National Enquirer in front pages for a month, but Libby decides it's unusable.

"Remember idealism, guys?" she asks them , "when politics was fought on issues of right and wrong, not the exploitation of human frailty?"

The Stantons want to tell the papers. Libby tries to blackmail them. Stanton visits Picker. Henry offers his resignation... "Oh for God's sake," you think, "spare us this debating-society crap; this is supposed to be a satire on realpolitik."

It ends on an up-note as the newly elected president waltzes his missus across the floor, Emma Thompson's red dress swirling among white and blue balloons, to show how moral trimming is subsumed into the fabric of American life, as she enters the colour scheme of the flag.

It's another stylish moment from a director who can do brilliant things with narrative, with symbolism and farce, but who cannot leave his audience to draw their own conclusions.

The week's other releases, page 12

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice