A film review by Craig J. Koban June 10, 2010



2010, no MPAA rating, 115 mins.


Michael Sheen: Tony Blair / Dennis Quaid: Bill Clinton / Hope Davis: Hilary Rodham Clinton / Helen McCrory: Cherie Blair


Directed by Richard Loncraine / Written by Peter Morgan



The phrase “Special Relationship” refers to the decidedly close political, diplomatic, cultural, and historical relationship between the U.K. and the U.S..  To be sure, these two respective countries also have their own allies outside of themselves, but the bond between England and America seems to be a whole other level of cozy during the last century. 


The new HBO docudrama, THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP, focuses squarely on the very recent affiliation between two of the most powerful men in the free world in British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President Bill Clinton.  The film certainly casts light on both the professional and personal friendship between the two (I could almost aptly describe the film as a bromance, only involving very, very prominent people in high places), but it also captures the political milieu of its time and how Clinton and Blair yearned to enact real political change before the new millennium.  The opening sections of the narrative clearly reveal the idealistic pairing of the two super powers as one of unlimited potential, but for as strong as their bond was, it was irrevocably tarnished by the Monica Lewinski sex scandal and the then festering crisis that was Kosovo.  As close towards one another as Blair and Clinton were, in the end there was no denying that there existed fundamental differences between the two politicians.


Peter Morgan, who has become a master of telling fascinatingly introspective and intimate portrayals of very prominent public figures, provided the teleplay for THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP.  He wrote the Oscar nominated THE QUEEN that dealt with both the British monarchy and PM Tony Blair.  Before that he wrote THE DEAL, also concerning Blair.  He then went on to pen the intriguing and captivating FROST/NIXON that focused on another type of special bond between an American President and a British celebrity.  Morgan recently wrote the terribly underrated sports biopic THE DAMNED UNITED about Brain Clough’s tumultuous tenure as the manager of Leeds United soccer team. 


Although THE DEAL and THE QUEEN are more linked to THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP than the other aforementioned films (this HBO film is said to finish off Morgan’s "Tony Blair Trilogy"), one thing becomes apparent when looking at all of these films: Morgan has a knack and effortless manner of taking subject matter and personas that we all think we know inside and out and provides a portal into their lives that feels fresh and proactive.  I read one critic commenting on the notion that the writer has a manner of making the viewer feel like they’re eavesdropping on larger-than-life pubic figures at their most powerful and mundane moments.  That’s a pitch perfect descriptor: in all of Morgan’s scripts, including THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP, he presents fact based characters in a way that feels undeniably convincing and real, often by showing them behind closed doors and /or in personal domestic situations.  His screenplays are uniformly so generous for how inviting they all seem: we get to see these authoritative politicians engaging in conversations and doing things that we would normally never see them in, which makes them feel even more authentic as characters.


The film hones in its narrative focus on the political events between the early to late 1990’s and we initially see Blair (played once again – third time’s a charm – by the always convincing and quietly commanding Michael Sheen, a true chameleon of an actor) as a wet-behind-the-ears politician in 1990 that harbored a deep admiration (or borderline man-crush) for the Democratic Commander-in-Chief, Bill Clinton (played brilliantly by the barely recognizable Dennis Quaid).  The future candidate for the Prime Minister’s seat comes to America to literally pick the brains of Clinton’s aides to assist him with his own campaign.  Taking the advice given to him, Blair went on four years later to win the highest office in the U.K. and thusly started one of the most important political relationships of the decade with Clinton.  The U.S. President seems even more elated than Blair with his victory: “When did it last happen that two guys on the same team found themselves with their hands on the joystick like this," he explains to Blair. “We could put out right wing politics out of business for a generation.”


As the film progresses we see the pair as deeply entrenched allies and friends, but it remains clear that as determined and independent minded as Blair was, he definitely looked up to Clinton for timely advice and guidance.  The initial formality of their first meetings eventually gave way to the pair forming a definitive connection: in many ways, Clinton and Blair were an ideological match made in heaven.  They both were ravenous optimists for positive change for their countries, both were driven by guileless personal ambitions, and both were center-left politicians that earnestly believed that what they were doing was for the betterment of all.  The film may not be romantic in the literal sense, but it sticks to the classical delineation of the word for the way it shows an experienced and seasoned veteran in Clinton taking a raw and inexperienced Blair so he could mould and guide him to the point where he became his political equal.  Ironically enough, Blair became more empowered the longer the relationship lasted and Clinton, ravaged by personal scandal, became more reliant on Blair to help bail him out.


Of course, I am describing the Monica Lewinsky scandal that had the unexpected effect of transforming Blair from an student of Clinton's to his equal and then finally to a more honorable man of trust to the public.  If there were a defect in Morgan’s script than it would definitely be the sense that the tawdriness of the scandal itself almost overshadows the overall arc of the political relationship between Blair and Clinton.  That, and it certainly draws attention off of the other seminal events that the men were linked to in the 1990’s.  Nonetheless, it would be tricky not to deal with the scandal, seeing as it marked one in a series of transitions in the Blair/Clinton relationship, the second one marked by what Blair thinks is a stunning lack of willingness on America's part to send ground troops into Kosovo.  Blair is younger and more recklessly fearless, whereas Clinton was the more doggedly hard-headed about not invading a sovereign nation that never has attacked the U.S. or Britain (hmmm…gotta give Billy points: not exactly faulty logic).  At this point it becomes very apparent that what we originally saw as two highly compatible political minds are, at heart, very different men with equally different methods and out of the fallout of one special relationship, a new one would forge in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush.


Again, the genius of the screenplay here is how intrinsically revealing and honest it is as an account of Clinton’s mentoring of Blair and the obstacles that unavoidably affected their friendship, for better and worse.  Clinton, thankfully, is never presented as a larger-than-life mentor caricature, but rather a fairly kind-hearted, charming, intelligent, and disarmingly plainspoken politician that both knew how to delicately teach Blair and get what he wanted out of the relationship as well.  Blair, on the other hand, is presented in an equally intriguing light: he was deceptively shrewd and cagey for drinking in all of the advice that Clinton had to offered him over the years and then he allied it to his own political strategies back home.  Clinton and Blair were, at times, close bosom buddies, but they precisely knew how to use one another.


As far as television films go, THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP looks every part of a big screen project, thanks to its high production values, impeccably well chosen cast members, and direction by Richard Loncraine that avoids pretentious pomp and circumstance and instead shoots the film low key and without overbearing flair (which only helps to accentuate the performers and the characters).  Michael Sheen, emerging over the years as one of the great character actors of the movies, is once again rock solid as Blair, a role that fits him at this point like a proverbial glove.  The supporting performances, including Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair and Hope Davis as Hillary Rodham Clinton, are thanklessly well drawn too; Davis has the trickier task, I think, of immersing herself in the First Lady as a woman of both staunch loyalty to her man and personal ambition and independent strength. 


Then there is, of course, a tubbier and greyer-than-normal Dennis Quaid as Clinton, who has the most difficult task of portraying the President by appropriating his nasally vocal intonations without directly making it fester as a silly impersonation.  Most importantly, though, Quaid has to shift through all of the minutia of the Clinton public figure that viewers remember; he forges a portrayal of a proud, resolute, charismatic, likeable, but ultimately flawed and arrogant man who allowed his sexual proclivities to get the better of him personally and publicly.  Quaid has always been an actor of wily vigor and bravado, and he certainly captures a similar essence in Clinton, but what he does an even finer job at is to show a very commanding political figure at his most emotionally stripped down and vulnerable.  In a weaker actor’s hands, the performance here could have been cartoonish and bumbling, but Quaid is perceptive and stalwart enough to not make Clinton a simplistic SNL sketch persona here.


Coming in the wake of other recent and superlative HBO films, like the great RECOUNT, TEMPLE GRANDIN and YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP is yet another strong reminder of how calculatingly immersive small screen films can be in comparisons to their big screen cousins.  Beyond that, the film is an absorbing peek into the meshing of two political personalities and how the most powerful of all binds can become unraveled.  Ultimately, the film also typifies a bittersweet undercurrent of the loss of potential in the underscored relationship: if Clinton were not rocked by a scandal involving semen-stained dresses and infidelity and perhaps reacted with the same vigilance as Blair did over Kosovo, then there is not telling how strong this "special relationship" could have been.  


CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:


RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj


TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2


TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj


YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj




CINEMA VERITE  (2011 jj1/2


TOO BIG TO FAIL  (2011 jj1/2


GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj




THE GIRL  (2012) jj


PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj




CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj



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