Absolute Politics Corrupts Absolutely
Review by Bryce Zabel
The Smackdown. With the political season coming at us even earlier this year than ever before in history, it seems right to take a glance in the rear-view mirror of our campaign bus and check out two classic election films. "The Candidate" really established the genre 35 years ago, giving us Robert Redford at the height of his charismatic on-screen presence as a JFK-like California senatorial candidate who wants to run on issues but ends up running on great hair and piercing eyes. A quarter of a century later, we got "Primary Colors" with John Travolta standing in for that horny guy who couldn't keep it zipped on the campaign trail or in the Oval Office. So those are the two nominees on our ballot. Let's see who's got the goods to win this cinematic election -- Redford/Kennedy or Travolta/Clinton.
The Challenger. The film comes from quite a pedigree: political writer Joe Klein wrote the book (originally as "Anonymous"), and the film was written by Elaine May and directed by Mike Nichols. Everything inside is paper-thin disguised as being about the 1992 Clinton campaign for the White House. John Travolta's Jack Stanton loves politics just like the real character he's based on and really cares about people, some of them so much he can't resist having sex with them. The reason to watch the film today, of course, is for insight into the Hillary character, Susan Stanton, as played by Emma Thompson (if you can get past how her repression of her British accent seems to give her Susan a sort of non-American blandness). Travolta's impression of our former president is a little too slow and scratchy and never quite nails down this character as someone who could win the presidency despite some huge errors in personal judgment. There's a great moment when Susan Stanton up and slaps the hell out of her husband's face after his latest infidelity: it's surprising and it's what you would hope Hill actually did to Bill at some point. However, this is a film that doesn't actually pick sides: Clinton haters will see it as proof that Bill was barely a moral level above pond scum, and Clinton lovers will see it as proof of his humanity, however flawed and imperfect.
The Incumbent. If our challenger film is about a candidate who loves politics too much, our champion -- "The Candidate" -- is about a candidate who doesn't love it enough, or even at all. Redford plays Bill McKay as a liberal lawyer fighting local battles for civil rights and environmental protection who is drafted into running a hopeless campaign, told he can say what he wants as a result and then starts to get close enough to victory to feel the need to compromise on his ideals. It illustrates the Catch-22 we have often put on American politics: namely, if a candidate wants to win, he must be suspect, and the best man has to lose or he can't be the best man after all. Written by Jeremy Larner and directed by Michael Ritchie, "The Candidate" isn't quite a comedy and it isn't quite a drama and, despite earlier admonitions that films aren't the way to send messages, this film is all about its message. It wants the audience to come away knowing that politics is a bad business that isn't really about governing at all, doesn't focus the issues but sands them down, and the system is so corrupt that the only way a good man or woman can prevail is to become corrupt and play the game. The deck is stacked at every juncture, but the details are beautifully realized and often subtle, throwing away the pay-off rather than ramming it home.
The Debate. The truth is that both these films have been bested by an independent candidate in this election. TV's "The West Wing" is superior to both in terms of laying out the mechanics of a modern political campaign and the show's final season pitting Alan Alda against Jimmy Smits was a great piece of film on an even larger and more complete canvas than either of our two main nominees.
First of all, "The West Wing" actually let its candidates talk about real issues with real answers. Both "Primary Colors" and "The Candidate" stage some of the most banal excuses for televised debates you'll ever see and, I'm not kidding, they actually make the latest round of Democratic and Republican debates look like sharp-edged battles over the issues.
It's also easy to argue that neither Travolta or Redford would ever have actually been elected as the characters they portray. Travolta is too phony and Redford is too removed. Even so, Redford's is the stronger performance. He feels real, within the context of his film, and Travolta feels like the caricature that he is and I didn't believe for a second that real voters would ever have supported him as portrayed.
On the other hand, there are wonderful performances in both films in supporting roles. Peter Boyle is wonderful as the campaign manager in "The Candidate." Billy Bob Thornton steals every scene he's in as the James Carville political guru in "Primary Colors."
By the way, Stanton isn't the only cheater -- McKay also nails a young campaign worker out on the trail. With him, though, it looks like a one-time mistake and with Stanton it's obviously a bad habit he can't break.
The Vote Count. Watching these two films back-to-back on consecutive nights was great fun and, in my mind, I went back-and-forth thinking about who was going to win. There's a lot to recommend both of them and, at the same time, neither one is perfect. However, unless you are keen to gain just a wee bit more insight into a second Clinton presidency, starring Hillary with Bill in a supporting role, then "Primary Colors" shouldn't get your vote as the Best Political Film. The film classic, the one that people will talk about many years from now, is the one that started it all by reflecting our first real unease with modern politics. Your winning candidate is "The Candidate."