A dramatisation that traces former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair's relationship with former U.S president Bill Clinton.
The Special Relationship of the title refers to the 'friendship’ between Great Britain and the United States. The phrase is a political sound-bite and a historical truism, and at least, as Peter Morgan’s script here would have it, a bit of wishful thinking for the Brits (if you’re in bed with the US, it says, you get a place at the table of international affairs and therefore a chance to leverage your position in world trade and power politics). Morgan, a playwright, who filled his scripts for The Queen and Frost/Nixon with smart one-liners and pathos for the powerful, has a stage dramatist’s love of irony and words. So the title of this charming, but rather facile take on the 'mateship’ between US President Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) and Brit PM Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), set between 1994 and 1998, is loaded and provocative. Morgan and director Richard Loncraine buy into the conventional wisdom most of us learn in the school playground; whether it’s a marriage or drinking pals, all friendships are maintained by a willing and generous spirit of reciprocity.
Just as the tone of The Queen was intimate and warm, The Special Relationship doesn’t intimidate with too many abstracts about how Downing Street or the White House actually works. It says a lot that the movie's key supporting characters aren’t heads of state or office holding power-brokers, but wives – and they get all of the punch lines. Hilary Clinton (Hope Davis) is here, full of tough love and good sense, while Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) manages to make her part as the nagging conscience of Tony’s early years as Prime Minister seem much more than the glib Sunday supplement portrait it feels like.
As in The Queen, The Special Relationship has a lot of fun with placing its very powerful characters in a domestic context of crushing banality; in one bit, Cherie and Tony debate the relative merits of being a power 'couple’ a la the Clintons, while the PM has a bath. As for the Clintons, we’re often treated to scenes set in the presidential boudoir after Bill has had a hard day at the office. This isn’t the stuff of hard-core political filmmaking, but light comedy. Indeed Morgan and Loncraine set-up Blair’s ga-ga attitude to Clinton, a political hero in his early years as Labor leader, as a 'man-crush’. These scenes seem to be done as a deliberate parody of romantic comedy. Here’s Blair, waiting by the phone, with an urgent need to be 'loved’, while a confident, charming and admiring Clinton offers him morsels of attention. It’s a gag that could seem cheap; but then, unbridled adoration is embarrassing and Morgan is smart enough to put an edge to it.
Blair’s loyalty is tested over the Lewinsky affair (in the film’s only genuinely moving moment Blair stands by his 'Man’ in a public display of friendship). But their 'bromance’ (as the movie constructs it) hits a wall when Clinton fears the domestic repercussions of US forces getting involved in a possible ground war in Kosovo over Serbian President’s MiloÅ¡eviÄ‡’s policy of 'ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia. For Blair, Kosovo is a test case; it’s a chance for powerful leaders to right a wrong. In the film’s only really sophisticated bit of power-drama, Clinton sees through Blair’s piety and deconstructs the PM’s moral urgings as political opportunism (and even this is 'personalised’; on the PM’s election, Clinton urged Blair to look for a 'legacy’, and with Blair's position on Kosovo, his words have come back to haunt him).
Looking good on the big screen, with strong, though not lavish production values, The Special Relationship was produced by the BBC and pay TV giant HBO for home viewing. Their long form TV series are brilliant but HBO telemovies tend to be a little too comfy and lightweight and this is no exception; in typical house style, The Special Relationship is episodic, pithy, fast moving and, frankly, superficial. The actors are all fine. Quaid and Davis are especially good as the Clintons; in their ease and impatience with each other they suggest a deep intimacy. Sheen is good; though not as complex here as he was in The Queen.
Still, for all its flaws there's a compelling energy in The Special Relationship that has absolutely nothing to do with Morgan's pop mag 'powerful people are just like us' view of world leaders. The fact is, he can write a terrific one liner and the movie is full of them.