Jungian therapist Jeremiah Adams has written: "To accept shadow means accepting the inherent ambiguities in life. We need to honor shadow, make it part of us, not banish it, or heal it, or be dominated by it." In their brilliant and incisive screen adaptation of the 1996 bestseller by Anonymous, director Mike Nichols and screenplay writer Elaine May explore the shadow in American politics.
Primary Colors puts on display the sexual addiction, casual lies, arrogance, and feelings of entitlement of a Southern Democratic candidate running for President (John Travolta). The narrator, Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), is so captivated by the folksy idealism of Governor Jack Stanton that he becomes his deputy campaign manager. Susan (Emma Thompson), the Governor's strong-willed wife, believes that she and her husband are destined to play an important role in history. But Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), a close advisor who takes great pride in his redneck roots, knows that Stanton's most grievous flaw is womanizing.
For damage control, the campaign brings in Libby Holden (Kathy Bates). Her troubleshooting reassembles Stanton's Humpty-Dumpty campaign again and again until she draws a line in the sand and takes a moral stand. It involves whether or not to make public dirt dug up on Stanton's impressive rival, Governor Fred Picker (Larry Hagman).
Primary Colors more than any other film in recent history captures the inherent ambiguities of contemporary American politics. It asks all the classic questions does the end justify the means, should political leaders be held accountable for what they do in their private lives, and what do the people really care about anyway?
But on a deeper level, this movie deals with the ways so many of us try to deny shadow by putting all of our energy into righteous causes. The Stantons believe they will do good; indeed, they feel entitled to be elected because of who they are, a sure sign of hubris. The Governor's sexual escapades, all the lies told to ingratiate himself with the public those are just little things that their supporters are expected to cover up.
This movie is a meditation on the dark side of human nature. What does it say about us as a people when our typical responses to the shadow are to ignore it, to try to put a good spin on it, or to divert attention away from it? (The movie Wag the Dog raises the same question with a more over-the-top story line.) What would be different if we neither banished it nor were dominated by it? And why in an arena that affects so many lives do we so readily ignore its opposite: conscience?