A film review by Craig J. Koban June 10, 2010
THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
2010, no MPAA rating, 115
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
TAKING CHANCE (2009) 1/2
TEMPLE GRANDIN (2010)
YOU DON'T KNOW JACK (2010)
THE SUNSET LIMITED (2011)
CINEMA VERITE (2011) 1/2
TOO BIG TO FAIL (2011) 1/2
GAME CHANGE (2012)
HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN (2012) 1/2
THE GIRL (2012)
PHIL SPECTOR (2013)
BEHIND THE CANDELABRA (2013)
CLEAR HISTORY (2013)