A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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.
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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.
Talk to your kids 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.
- In theaters: March 20, 1998
- On DVD or streaming: September 9, 1998
- Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Emma Thompson, John Travolta
- Director: Mike Nichols
- Studio: Universal Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Run time: 144 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: profanity, sex talk, adult themes.
- Last updated: March 14, 2020
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