Friday, February 14, 2003

THE NEAR-GREAT MOVIES: Roger Ebert can cover The Great Movies -- I'd like to start spending some time each week to cover some of the near-greats, movies that were pretty damn good but never found the audience they deserved.

This series starts today with Mike Nichols' Primary Colors, a 1998 movie that dared to be about something -- the conflict between ends and means, and how one goes about being an ethical person in a world where others aren't going to bother.

And, yes, the movie's also about Bill Clinton. Or, at least, the underlying novel by Joe Klein would neither have been written nor much noticed without the obvious real-life parallels between the Clintons and their team and the fictionalized Stantons.

Indeed, it was those parallels which sunk the movie after its March 1998 release, limiting its total U.S. box office to under $40 million. After all, who needed to see a movie about the fake Clintons when the real ones were knee-deep in early Lewinsky?

Five years later, though, we can stop looking for parallels and evaluation John Travolta's Bill Clinton impersonation, and instead gaze with fresh eyes at the movie. And it's great.

For a detailed plot synopsis, go here -- no need to be redundant. All that you need to know is that we're dealing with a young political operative who gets sucked into to the Presidential primary campaign of a charismatic governor of a small southern state, and who becomes involved in various moral, ethical and strategic issues along the way.

And now here's what makes the movie work: there are no "bad guys" in the movie, no easy foils advancing obviously false propositions. Arguments are raised and debated passionately, and are resolved insofar as the plot necessitates moving forward -- but they aren't resolved as moral propositions. There are no answers here, and no One True Viewpoint artificially imposed by the filmmakers, only smart people raising good questions.

For example: one of the running debates in the movie is whether it's proper for a campaign to tar an opponent with sleazy episodes from his past -- not Keating Five-like episodes of fraudulent or unethical conduct, mind you, but very sad, very human behavior of people at their weakest. Well, if you assume that rivals from the other political party will find and use such information in the future, aren't you obligated to use it yourself during the primaries so that the party has a better chance of winning?

The movie posits a self-perpetuating downwards spiral of pessimism -- assume the worst of your foes' ethics, assume the worst of the media, assume that the public will respond to the lowest common denominator and only become engaged by scandal and muck -- and soon enough, even candidates dedicated to elevating public discourse feel compelled to engage in the same low tactics which provoke even more cynicism and pessimism.

Which is a shame. Because as the movie points out, the world of politics is still inhabited by a fair contigent of idealists and dreamers, people who desperately want to believe in their leaders and the possibility of real good to emerge from public office. But can you be an idealistic politician, an morally pure campaigner, and win? If you don't win, does it matter how ethically the campaign behaved? And can a man who sleeps with every woman he can (except his wife) in his private life neverthless be admirable in his public life?

Good questions, all, and unlike shallow political movies like The American President or Dave which pretend to raise lofty issues (the personal privacy of political figures and the need for "ordinary people" in Washington) yet resolve them in a facile, simplistic, "of course Richard Dreyfuss is a weenie!" manner, Primary Colors provides the viewer with no easy enemies to hate and all of the nuances and complexities of the real world.

The movie is well-cast and well-acted. Travolta's solid, Kathy Bates is incredible, Billy Bob Thornton is the only Jim Carville clone you'll ever need to see, and Maura Tierney is . . . well, at least it made it amusing last night to see her in a supporting role, because we were flipping back between Primary Colors and ER during the commercial breaks. Plus you've got Larry Hagman as Gov. Fred Picker, a pseudo-Perot, and it's a nice little performance from an underappreciated veteran actor.

Finally, Primary Colors is a movie about falling in love -- with a politician, that is. It's about the yearning so many of us have to want to believe in something larger than ourselves, and someone capable of putting those beliefs into action. And like love itself, sometimes we're disappointed in what we find when we peer too closely at the object of our affections, and it forces us to make hard choices: Do we just give up on the object of our affections? Do we become cynical about the prospects for ever achieving pure love, and give up on ever finding it? Or do we accept that we are dealing in the land of humans, not angels, and admit that something compromised might still be the best we are able to find?

This is the world of Primary Colors, and it is well worth your time to rent and enjoy.

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