Primary Colors (1998) -vs- The Candidate (1972)

Primary Colors -vs- The Candidate

Bryce Zabel, Editor-in-ChiefThe Smackdown

What does Barack Obama have in common with Robert Redford? Besides being a liberal Democrat? Maybe, by the end of the evening, Obama will have the chance to utter Redford’s famous line to Peter Boyle in The Candidate to his own campaign manager, David Plouffe.

You remember. “What do we do now?”

Redford’s character was politically naive where Obama has already been toughened by a career in politics. He probably knows damn well what’s next.

In any case, now that the 2008 election is nearly 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 36 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. It’s a good study of the quest for charisma in our candidates that has lead us to the success of Obama. By the way, the New York Time’s A.O. Scott has a wonderful retrospective look at this film posted today with lots of clips. Check it out.

Then, just over 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, and his wife, who was the discipline behind the team. So those are the two nominees on our ballot. Let’s see who’s got the goods to win this cinematic election — Redford/Obama or Travolta/Clinton.

The Challenger

Primary Colors 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. I would love to see what this team could do with the 2008 Hillary campaign, though, because I bet it provided just as much material as Bill’s 1998 one did.

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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 (not to be confused with John McCain) 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 payoff 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 nor 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. 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 maybe why the run for the second Clinton presidency, starring Hillary with Bill in a supporting role, burned out, 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.

About Bryce Zabel 199 Articles
Drawing inspiration from career experiences as a CNN correspondent, TV Academy chairman, writer/producer and fast-food cook, Bryce is the Editor-in-Chief of Movie Smackdown. While he freely admits to having written the screenplay for the reviewer-savaged "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," he hopes the fact that he also won the Writers Guild award a couple of years ago will cause you to cut him some slack. He's also a member of the Directors Guild, creator of five primetime network TV series, and author of a new non-fiction book about UFOs.

2 Comments on Primary Colors (1998) -vs- The Candidate (1972)


  1. That actually is a great moment for Susan Stanton and for the reason you describe. Thanks for adding!


  2. “There’s a great moment when Susan Stanton up and slaps the hell out of her husband’s face after his latest infidelity.”
    I thought the best Susan Stanton moment was when she first met Henry. Up to that point, whenever anyone was introduced to Henry, they told him how much they respected his grandfather. Susan’s first words to him were that she met him when he was young, running through a sprinkler. Then she tells him his grandfather was a great man. That was the moment Henry decided to join the campaign. That’s how you play politics on an individual level.

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