Primary Colors Movie Poster Image

Primary Colors



Well-acted drama full of Clinton-era jabs.
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 1998
  • Running Time: 144 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

It's an ethical quagmire, but at least the script addresses this. A presidential hopeful is a married womanizer, his wife is an unloving, ambitious schemer, and their staff is full of enablers. The one character with scruples kills herself over it.


A glimpse of the body of a suicide-by-gunshot.


No action, but characters discuss sex and scandal in and out of bed. A man in an office setting shows a female co-worker his penis (out of the frame). One character is a lesbian, another confesses to a homosexual affair.


Much gutter language ("f--k," etc.) among the powerful and influential.


Panasonic, Krispy Kreme, and Larry King's show all get plugs.

Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Social drinking. Discussions of cocaine use.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that this drama (based on the book by the same name) is a thinly veiled take on the scandals of Bill Clinton's presidency. Even though the movie's characters are seeking the highest office in the land, they still cuss like longshoremen. Ethically, they're also in the gutter. The Jack Stanton character, presidential material, is a womanizer who makes no apologies (just perpetual cover-ups) for his personal flaws, yet charms us as much as he's supposed to charm the voters. The character who seems the most principled commits suicide.

Kids say

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What's the story?

Jack Stanton (John Travolta), the charismatic governor of an unnamed southern state, is going for the Democratic presidential nomination. He persuades naive Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) to come on board as an assistant campaign manager. Burton is the son of a late, heroic Civil Rights leader, and it's through his eyes that the story unfolds. Jack's tightly wound wife Susan (Emma Thompson) doesn't care that her husband cheats on her, as long as it's out of the spotlight. During the campaign, the Stanton team claims that they aren't going to "go negative" with attack ads. But privately they do whatever's necessary to get Jack his party's nomination. When Jack panders to Jewish voters by claiming that his rival won't support Israel, the opponent suffers a heart attack. Replacing him is Fred Picker (Larry Hagman), a political figure beloved and admired, even by one of Stanton's top strategists, Libby (Kathy Bates). Henry and Libby investigate Picker's past and find a lurid scandal that would ruin him. Will the Stantons use it? Especially with Jack facing further charges of adultery and draft-dodging?

Is it any good?


Travolta is astounding here -- his Jack Stanton can go from skirt-chasing scoundrel to inspirational, Kennedy-esque figure in one breath. Henry is a rather weakly drawn figure who also carries on his own casual love affairs. It's Libby -- a self-described crazy lesbian -- who turns out to be the conscience of the movie, lambasting the Stantons over their cynical scheming and the loss of their idealism. But the argument is also made that U.S. presidents all the way back to Lincoln have lied and played dirty to get into the White House, and that the ends justified their means.

PRIMARY COLORS started out life as a best-selling novel written by an anonymous author who seemed to be writing a disguised-insider account of the Bill Clinton administration. The film is hardly kid stuff either. It's talky, jumpy, foulmouthed, and -- while a showcase of great acting -- seems anchored in late-1990s scandal, since the screen version makes the Clinton parallels stronger than ever. The messages about comprising your integrity and taking the low road to attain a goal can too easily be dismissed as being relevant only to one particular past White House occupant. But they should rightfully be applied to every politician seeking office.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the way Stanton's supporters stick by him, sometimes in spite of themselves, just for the chance to grab power (although allegedly to do some good for society down the line). Many claim that all our presidential-class politicians -- even "Honest Abe" Lincoln -- told folksy lies and played dirty to get into the White House and that that goal justifies their misdeeds. Parents can ask their kids if they agree with this, and whether the movie Stantons are like other real-life candidates, not just the Clintons.

Movie details

Theatrical release date:March 20, 1998
DVD/Streaming release date:September 9, 1998
Cast:Billy Bob Thornton, Emma Thompson, John Travolta
Director:Mike Nichols
Studio:Universal Pictures
Run time:144 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:profanity, sex talk, adult themes.

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Parent of a 13 year old Written bycolten97 October 10, 2012

An excellent political satire.

The much under-rated Primary Colors represents the zenith of its genre: a consistently excellent political satire armed with a stellar cast, an involving, intricate plot, and some of the finest direction in recent times from the sporadic Mike Nichols. John Travolta's portrayal of a Clinton-esquire Southern governor with a weakness for women and doughnuts is note perfect, encapsulating the flawed yet undoubtedly brilliant Jack Stanton with effortless flair and charisma. Travolta is ably supported by English character actors Emma Thompson and big screen debutant Adrian Lester, as well as an Oscar nominated Kathy Bates, Billy Bob Thornton and a resurgent Larry Hagman. The film is, in essence, a chronology of Stanton's rise of the political ladder and the struggles encountered by his vibrant team in keeping their man in the race, despite numerous setbacks and tragedies along the way. The script gives Travolta a perfect platform to express the very human emotions that both constrain and encourage us: his early speeches are punctuated by salient anecdotes, and were are given equal insight into Stanton the man and Stanton the politician. Thus the film's fundamental paradox arises: the audience is clearly conditioned to sympathise with Stanton as a result of his remarkable eloquence, yet we are frequently undercut by revelations of sex scandals, endless untruths and the often heartless pragmatism he embarks upon. This conflict for the audience is superbly manipulated so that, at the film's conclusion, we are unsure as to what our own emotions should be. Few films manage to pull this off: fewer with the nuanced skill of Nichols' political odyssey. I want to add a few words about the female performances in the film. Emma Thompson, as the Hilary Clinton of the the cast, nails both the accent and mannerisms of her model with a convincing determination. Her character is often the mediator among the campaign team, yet there is a ruthlessness about her, a quiet conviction in her actions that her husband is clearly sustained by. Kathy Bates is the unhinged lesbian media consultant who is drafted in to nullify the potent threat of negative media reporting. She clearly gets all the best lines including a memorable reference to Stanton's string of lovers as "sorry trash bins": scrupulous editing on my part here. At the film's conclusion, Bates comes to the fore, spelling out the impossible conflict between what is politically right and what is humanly right with an intensity that few actors could accomplish. Her subsequent Oscar nomination was well deserved and she was unlucky to be pitted against a triumphant Judi Dench in the Best Supporting Actress category. That said, this is Travolta's movie. This is a career-defining performance from an actor unfortunately sullied by a series of mind-numbing duds, yet had he chosen his roles more wisely a more creditable media image would most certainly have been forthcoming. Don't be put off by its subject matter: this is film making at its best and is a credit to its highly talented cast and crew.
What other families should know
Too much sex
Too much swearing