Emma Thompson, John Travolta, ...

Nothing is as important to comedy as timing. But in satire, timelessness counts for more. The novel Primary Colors caught Clinton mania right at its crest. When the roman à clef was published in 1996, most Clinton jokes were still told with a genial wink. People were still able to laugh about “bimbo eruptions” and good ol’ gals with big ol’ hair. There were some loud, dissenting voices around the edges, true. (I’ll get to The New Clinton Chronicles shortly, to look at just how loud and edgy the dissent could get.) But things hadn’t gotten truly sad or painful yet.

The movie Primary Colors hasn’t been so lucky with its timing. Mike Nichols’ comedy opened on March 20, only five days after a distraught Kathleen Willey went on 60 Minutes to talk about White House gropings; now its home-video version arrives just three weeks after The Speech and the President’s admission that he’s a liar. Suddenly its fast-track couple’s marriage of conveyance doesn’t seem so funny. That’s a shame, because there are good things in Primary Colors. John Travolta is a wonderful Clinton/Stanton, right down to the lazy roll of the hips; Emma Thompson is a wicked, tightly wound Hillary/Susan. And Kathy Bates is, as in nearly every film she makes, a fierce, funny force of nature, so far above the material she must need a telescope to read her lines.

Bates’ character–Libby, the tireless “dust-buster” loyalist–is also, alone of all the characters, the one who simply will not compromise. She and only she has things she will not do. So Primary Colors places her at its moral center. Yet both the book and (to a greater degree) the movie do something curious: They undercut her. She’s the only person in the story with a conscience; but, as both Primarys take pains to point out, she’s also mentally disturbed. This is where idealism leads a person, they say: Poor Libby is not strong enough for the real world, let alone real politics; best leave that to pragmatists like the Stantons.

The original book by Anonymous–that is, Joe Klein, who once protested his innocence as convincingly as any president–gave Libby one small victory. It left the ending open, allowing readers to think that perhaps her young confidant, the eager Henry Burton, had been won to her cause. Elaine May’s script, however, coldly takes that tiny achievement away. Its final shot is of Henry beaming as he shakes hands with Stanton at his Inaugural Ball; once again the ends justify the means, and to the spoiled belong the victories.

It’s a cynical touch, although still several worlds away from The New Clinton Chronicles, an updated version of a 1994 celluloid attack on the President by Citizens for Honest Government that links him not only to serial hanky-panky but to drug smuggling, money laundering, and murder. (Other video exposés from the family-values-focused Jeremiah Films: the shocking true stories behind evolution, Freemasonry, and Halloween.) But that’s not what makes Primary Colors sometimes difficult to enjoy. It’s the context that the Clintons’ own R-rated long-running saga (complete with product placements for the Gap and Zegna ties) has placed it in.

For how can viewers look at Primary Colors now in quite the way it was intended? The movie’s toothsome female volunteers (“muffins,” in the story’s parlance) now loom like potential Monicas; Stanton’s angry self-pity (“I just can’t catch a break, can I?” he complains, after being accused of impregnating a teenager) suddenly sounds less like a joke and more like the next-day transcript of a sour speech. The creepiest scene comes toward the end, when Libby pulls out the DNA tests that prove Stanton’s lied to everyone about his sexcapades. After Libby tosses them onto the kitchen table, Susan–perhaps the least sympathetic wronged wife in recent movies–simply turns her back and asks if this means the end of Jack’s political career.

“You see, Jack?” Libby says tearfully. “She isn’t even upset that you f—ed your 17-year-old babysitter. And you know why? It’s never the cheat who goes to hell. It’s always the one who he cheated on. That’s why you can still talk in that tenderhearted voice about being in it for the folks, and Susie here can only talk in that voice from hell about your political career. Now what kind of s— is that, Jack? Oh, excuse me. I forgot. It’s the same old s—. It’s the s— no one ever calls you on. Ever.”

Except, of course, the real Jack Stanton has been called on it. The real Susan Stanton is being forced to live through it. And what happens next–and how it happens, over the next few months and years–is the kind of human drama the dated Primary Colors cannot even begin to touch. Colors: B- Chronicles: C-

Primary Colors
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