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Film: The Big Picture - All too black and white

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