‘We win because our ideas are better’
Primary Colours has always been one of my favourite films. It was released at a time when Bill Clinton was moving political satire from obscure TV slots to mainstream culture. Of course, as satire, it takes its inspiration from Clinton. However, as another Clinton’s bid for the White House sputters and fades it is a film that is defiantly worth revisiting
John Travolta is Jack Stanton, an ambitious Democratic governor from the south. He is partnered by the equally ambitious Susan who is determined that her husband make it all the way to Capitol Hill. An eclectic mix of characters make up the Stanton’s campaign team, the newest recruit is Henry. Henry is the hero of the film and although the film is ostensibly about the Stanton’s campaign, it is Henry’s ups and downs and moral dilemmas that shape the contours of the film.
Henry is a cool, collected, suave and sophisticated black activist who is not so much persuaded as co-opted into joining Stanton after seeing Stanton cry. He wants a President who ‘cares’. His girlfriend is less than amused at Henry working for ‘cracker’ Stanton. Race and its prominence as an issue in American politics is a continuing narrative in the film. Henry articulates a intergrationist view while his girlfriend is segregationist. Meanwhile, Stanton becomes the mouthpiece of unconscious prejudice – a black family are ‘good but simple folks’. So we see patronising prejudice dovetailing with segregationist arrogance and separatism.
Henry’s fellow ‘true believer’ is Libby. Libby is his antithesis, a neurotic aging lesbian veteran of many-a-campaign. She cares too much; breaking down when it turns out her candidate is not the ‘rock her church was built on’. Unfortunately, Libby, like any true believer desperate to believe, builds her churches on sandstone not granite. Her eventual demise by her own hand is the pivotal moment of the film and for the first time Henry’s confidence in Stanton is totally shaken. Symbolically, she shoots herself through the heart.
Libby and Henry are asked to dig dirt on the newest and shiniest candidate in the race, cleaner than clean, Freddy Picker. They dig and they find, he was into cocaine and had a gay affair – the Stanton’s are determined to leak it and totally discredit Picker. Henry and Libby object; Picker is ‘decent but flawed’. Libby reminds Jack of a time when he said that ‘we don’t do dirt, our job is to make it clean and then we will win because our ideas are better.’ She fails to convince them despite threatening to reveal Jack had an affair with a 17 y/o babysitter.
It is made pretty clear from the start that Stanton is a sleazy character. Sexually promiscuous out of wedlock, prone to exaggeration and downright lying Stanton is far from a model moral character. Ultimately his raison d’être is that the end justifies the means; that although he is flawed he is the best person for the job because he cares and that it is the price you ‘pay to lead’. It’s hard not to wonder if this has somehow not become America’s national motif, ironically under a Republican president. Substitute ‘entry to the White House’ for ‘the spread of democracy’ and Bush replicates Stanton’s logic perfectly. American might is right because it’s ‘cause’ is just and to hell with the price and consequence for others.
It is to be hoped that the current runners do not seek to emulate Stanton. Courage and honesty in the face of ones flaws is an extremely admirable trait, especially in a leader. It is certainly better than the false pretence that you have none. However, a fickle public tend to reward the pretence more than the truth. In that at least Stanton’s world-view has some claims. We want to believe that those that govern us are somehow better than us and are ‘superior’ and when they turn out to be as mortal as the rest we punish them thrice; once for the sin, once for the sinned against, and once for the sin of our broken dreams.
At the end of the film, the enduring image is of a distraught Libby. Her passionate, neurotic and doomed defence of purity is a moving moment of modern cinema. If only politics could be that way, surely the world would be a better place?