Primary Colors is a 1998 drama film based on the novel Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, a roman à clef about Bill Clinton`s first presidential campaign in 1992, which originally had been published anonymously, but in 1996 was revealed to have been written by journalist Joe Klein, who had been covering Clinton`s campaign for Newsweek. It was directed by Mike Nichols and starred John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, and Adrian Lester. Bates was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and the film itself was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Young political idealist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is recruited to join the campaign of Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a charismatic, Southern governor who is vying to win the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. Henry is impressed by Stanton`s genuine warmth and empathy with people. He joins Stanton`s inner circle of political advisers: Stanton`s formidable wife, Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson); ruthless, redneck political strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton); intelligent and attractive spokeswoman Daisy Green (Maura Tierney); and sly political operator Howard Ferguson (Paul Guilfoyle) as they journey to New Hampshire, the first state to hold a presidential primary.
After Stanton completes an impressive debate performance against his Democratic rivals, Henry’s ex-girlfriend shows up to question Stanton about his arrest during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The team becomes worried that Stanton’s past indiscretions may be used against him by the press and his political opponents. They hire Jack and Susan`s old friend, tough but unbalanced Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), to respond to any attacks designed to undermine Stanton`s candidacy, as well as anticipate problems such as allegations about Stanton`s notorious womanising. One of Stanton`s mistresses, Cashmere McLeod (Gia Carides), produces secret taped conversations between them to prove they had an affair. Henry discovers that the tapes have been doctored, so Libby tracks down the man responsible for the tapes and forces him at gunpoint to confess his guilt in a signed letter to the American public.
The campaign is then rocked by a fresh allegation when Stanton`s old friend, `Big Willie` McCullison (Tommy Hollis) approaches Henry to tell him that his 17-year old daughter Loretta (who worked for the Stantons as a babysitter) is pregnant and that Stanton is the father. Henry and Howard tell Willie he must allow his daughter to undergo an amniocentesis to determine Stanton`s paternity. Although they convince Willie to remain silent on the issue, Henry is nonetheless sickened and disillusioned with the experience.
Realising the campaign is falling behind in the polls, Stanton`s team adopt a new strategy. Stanton begins going on the offensive by attacking his nearest rival, Senator Lawrence Harris (Kevin Cooney) for being insufficiently pro-Israel and for threatening to cut Medicare. Harris confronts Stanton during a radio debate but suffers a heart attack after the encounter. He subsequently withdraws from the race and is replaced by his friend, former Florida Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman). Picker`s wholesome, straight-talking image proves an immediate threat to the campaign.
Henry and Libby decide to seek out information about Picker’s past. They discover from his brother-in-law, Eddie Reyes (Tony Shalhoub), that Picker had a cocaine addiction as Governor, which led to the disintegration of his first marriage. They also meet Lorenzo Delgado (John Vargas), with whom Picker had a homosexual affair. Not expecting the information to ever be used, Libby and Henry share their findings with Jack and Susan, but are dismayed when they both decide to leak the information to the press. Libby says that if Jack does so, she will reveal that he tampered with the results of the paternity test, proving that he slept with Willie`s daughter. Libby commits suicide after she realizes she spent her life idealizing Jack and Susan only to learn how flawed they truly are. Racked with guilt over Libby`s death, Stanton takes the incriminating information to Picker, and apologizes for seeking it out. Picker admits to his past indiscretions, and agrees to withdraw from the race and to endorse Stanton. Henry intends to quit the campaign, admitting he has become deeply disillusioned with the whole political process. Stanton begs Henry to reconsider, persuading him that the two of them can make history.
Months later, President Stanton is dancing at the Inaugural Ball with First Lady, Susan. He shakes the hands of all his campaign staff, the last of whom is Henry.
Directed by Mike Nichols
Produced by Mike Nichols
Screenplay by Elaine May
Based on Primary Colors
by Joe Klein
Starring John Travolta
Billy Bob Thornton
Music by Ry Cooder
Cinematography Michael Ballhaus
Edited by Arthur Schmidt
Distributed by Universal Studios
March 20, 1998
Running time 143 minutes
Country United States