Pity Primary Colors. Like Bill Clinton's presidency, it's been overshadowed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal, with critics and moviegoers less than enthusiastic at the Stateside opening earlier this year. It could be because the American public prefer current political scandals to past ones. A shame, as this thinly-veiled portrayal of Bill Clinton's rise to power, based on the bestselling book by `Anonymous', is genuine jaw-to-floor viewing.
We watch this damning story of what it takes to reach the top through the eyes of an `innocent', a naïve young campaigner exploited for his race. The message is that appearance is everything and reality can take a hike. The `happy' presidential-wannabe pair spend more time bickering than enjoying their unity, while the moving tales Stanton reels off to the public - and the tears he cries - are a scripted sham.
Henry Burton, recruited as a symbol for the part his father played in the civil rights campaign, is in every scene, leaving you continually asking: "When will he walk away?" Come the end, it's a battle for morality, with us backing Burton to do the right thing.
Lester is ideal in his first big Holly-wood outing: as the relative unknown he brings no baggage to the part and it's easy to see events through his eyes. That he and fellow compatriot Emma Thompson landed such plum roles is a surprise, yet the illusion of Englishness is soon lost. Much has been made of the sex scene between the two characters that was later cut (some claim under pressure from Hillary Clinton), but the reality is that this involving drama doesn't need it. The tensions and changes in relationship between the pair are fraught enough as it is.
The bravest performance comes from Travolta as the presidential contender who can't keep his fly zipped. The sole American lead had the most to lose (Tom Hanks passed on the role for exactly that reason) and his uncanny impersonation of Clinton, right down to the accent and gestures, could have been cinematic suicide. But he survives, somehow making his immoral character charismatic and sympathetic. In one scene, he sits alone and isolated in a doughnut shop, simply chatting with the guy behind the counter, while yet another political scandal breaks and his team go into overdrive to protect him. During this single sequence, the presidential candidate momentarily appears slightly pathetic. Alone.
The supporting cast are perfect, from Thornton's wheeler-dealer strategist to Bates' aggressive dirt digger, whose dream is to find a truly moral candidate. Ex-JR Larry Hagman even appears in a cameo as Stanton's rival, while May's script aptly catches and exploits every nuance of dialogue.
It's only towards the end that your concentration waivers, as one scandal too many stretches the plot out that little bit too far. But then it successfully rallies towards the finale, when Henry faces the ultimate career choice...
Powerful performances make this brave, clever political satire compelling viewing, while Travolta's masterly turn leaves you in no doubt as to who his character is based on. Its effectiveness is sent sky-high by the reality festering around the inspiration.