I watched a new movie on HBO last weekend called ‘The Special Relationship’. Starring Michael Sheen as British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Dennis Quaid as President Bill Clinton, the movie depicts the relationship between the two men through some of the most important moments of their political careers.
Covering the period of US-UK politics from 1996 to 2001, “The Special Relationship’ opens with Blair and Clinton meeting for the first time at the White House months before Blair’s election to 10 Downing, and closes during their farewell meeting at Blair’s country estate, the end of Bush v Gore playing out as a backdrop. In between these events, filmmakers depict the highs of their partnership (working towards peace in Northern Ireland), as well as the lows (their pitched disagreements over the use of force against Serbia). The result is not a bad way to spend a couple hours if the politics of that time interest you, but even for political junkies the difficulty of trying to shoehorn their generally unremarkable reigns into a movie does show from time to time.
It begins promisingly enough. Blair is ushered into the Oval Office for his first meeting with Clinton and finds Bill nowhere to be seen. Turns out he's in the side office talking to some foreign head of state. Political nerds (and readers of Ken Starr's entry into the canon of high pornography) will recognize the small office as the site of many an encounter with a certain intern, but for the first meeting of these two heavyweights in a movie that's about their working relationship, it's pretty tepid. Then Clinton and Blair have a chat about the eponymous "special relationship" between their two countries, a concept Clinton casually dismisses, reciting a short list of countries who can actually claim to have any such relationship with the US. In this scene, though, you do get a sense of how these two men perceived themselves as world leaders helping to usher in a leftward and perhaps permanent shifting in the Western political landscape. Heady stuff. Of course the scene is set before the scandals of Clinton's impeachment and Blair's illegal war-making, but even still, their optimism doesn't seem naive. In a better movie, this scene might have had the feel of tragedy.
The only really interesting theme the movie explores, and even this is done in an undramatic, too-subtle-by-half fashion, is the idea that the character of Tony Blair rather than George W Bush's powers of persuasion brought Britain so completely into the Iraq War. They show this through Blair's almost messianic belief in the power of strong nations to help the victimized around the world, specifically those being ethnically cleansed in the former Yugoslavia. It was this world-view that put Blair at loggerheads with Clinton over the deployment of ground forces in Bosnia: Blair wanted them, Clinton didn't. So when Bush came around looking for allies to help him oust "the guy who tried to kill [his] dad," Tony Blair was hardly just along for the ride. The movie suggests Bush was just the kind of American president Tony Blair had been looking for.
Michael Sheehan, who seems to have been given an unspoken but unbreakable lifetime contract to play Tony Blair in all films, does competent work here, but one wonders at times if Blair was really quite so innocent and bright-eyed as the movie suggests. Dennis Quaid, who admirably gained some weight to play Clinton, goes halfway towards an impression of the former president, but then steps back to create a scowling, self-serious Clinton-character who never really rings true.
Hope Davis, however, who plays Hillary Clinton, needs to talk to Sheehan's agents about securing one of his lifetime contracts on playing a living human being, because she nails Hillary so well I wouldn't like to see anyone else give an attempt. From her barking laugh, to the prim honor-student persona she cultivated in those early days who could be both steely and feminine, Davis gets it scary-right. It's helpful of course that Davis and Hillary resemble each other, and that Davis, who seems to specialize in sour, waspy characters, is playing the Queen Bee of sour disaffection. But even if it seems easy, it's not; the mind-image of Hillary Clinton we all have fades into the background as we watch Davis channel Hillary, and that's no easy trick.
Overall 'The Special Relationship" has the feel of a weak prologue to some eventual Tony Blair bio-pic, and prologues generally don't make for good feature films. I'd mark this as for political junkies only.