Tricky Dick

In Primary Colors, being president means never having to say you're sorry.

Today, the office-seeker carries the blight of ambition, while the system itself has slipped discreetly into the background. In other words, Primary Colors attends to the moral crisis of the zipper while neglecting the deeper compromises of the open pocket. The campaign contribution--not the tricky dick--is the real instrument of public betrayal, and to the extent that Primary Colors neglects that fact, it is a profoundly dishonest film.

Make that a dishonest film about dishonest people. After a dozen setbacks and as many instances of stirring Southern pluck, the Stanton campaign moves into its third act. After the governor goads a wonkish opponent into a heart attack, a surrogate candidate--a former Florida governor and premature retiree (played by Larry Hagman with a charismatic stoicism that humbles most of the cast)--steps into the spotlight. Despite having suffered scrutiny themselves, Jack and Susan Stanton urge their loyal staffers to dig up dirt and sully the upstart. The primary colors, it turns out, are a spectrum of muddy browns, and if the stakes are high enough, any person will wallow in the stuff.

Nichols--a self-professed FOB who has hosted Clinton fundraisers--seems reluctant at times to concede this fact, and he embraces the book's sentimental search for a moral center. In cinematic terms, this involves constant camera movement whenever a character endures a twinge of conscience. And it happens all the time. When the campaign team experiences one of these incidents collectively, the background music swells and the camera circles the characters' faces as in a game of musical chairs. The game ends whenever Nichols finds his mark and zooms in for a close-up: The truth has just been spoken.

Primary Colors, however, is less about speaking truth to power than speaking half-truths for power. There should be no surprise that the novel Primary Colors was wildly popular in Washington, New York, and the other places where rich people rule by the dictates of their investment portfolios while their media minions conduct celebrity circuses that presume to interpret the affairs of state. And it's an engaging book, briskly plotted and smartly written.

Yet, while it flirts with fact, Primary Colors lacks the will to indict Clinton for his most unconscionable acts. You won't find Jack Stanton returning home to oversee the execution of a man whose brain damage was so severe that he set aside the dessert of his final meal for later--as Clinton did in 1992 with murderer Ricky Ray Rector, in order to avoid the appearance of being soft on crime.

But the most assiduous--and most seductive--conceit is the romanticism with which Primary Colors stumps for the president as a man of the people. In one affecting scene, Stanton's staff does spin control in a hostile hotel suite, while Nichols's camera peers through the window to the candidate in a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop across the street. The light outside the Krispy Kreme is a stark, neon green, and the shop is all glass and chrome with crimson counters and booths. Soon we recognize Stanton, pudgy and vulgar in the best sense of the word, wearing a drab sweatshirt and striped blue sweatpants, and he's perched on a stool, listening to the crippled counterboy. Before Stanton's hungry smile becomes discernible, the viewer recognizes this depiction of late-night Americana as a handsome (if entirely disingenuous) tribute to Hopper's Nighthawks.

Governing, we are told, is lonely business, and the functional agenda of Primary Colors is to serve as an apologia for the ethical lapses that electoral politics demand. Time and again, the charismatic Stanton sweet-talks and rationalizes away his transgressions, and in exchange for his candor, all we are asked to do is hold our nose amid the faint stench of brimstone. The Stantons, like the Clintons, practice the high American religion of pragmatism, and Primary Colors skillfully--and entertainingly--wrests our consent to be betrayed.

Primary Colors is playing at area theaters.

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