Movie: The Special Relationship

 Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid as Blair and Clinton

Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid as Blair and Clinton

The Special Relationship is that political love affair between the United States and the United Kingdom – despite the Revolutionary Wars.  The credits sequences of this film, directed by Richard Loncraine, give us a pictorial historical overview of the presidents and  prime ministers and their partnerships - from Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, to John Major and Bill Clinton in the 1990s.  However, it opens with a visit from the Labour Leader, Tony Blair, in 1996 to the White House, which was expecting Blair to become the next British Prime Minister.  He was elected in a landslide in 1997.  In the meantime, Bill Clinton was elected for his second term as President.

This screenplay has been written by Peter Morgan who has show quite a remarkable skill in reconstructing political and social situations as well as credible imagining of conversations between the politicians, royalty and significant American figures:  The Deal (the television movie about Tony Blair’s agreement with Gordon Brown concerning the succession in the prime ministership and which introduced Michael Sheen as Blair), The Queen (Sheen reprising his role as Blair and introducing Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair), The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon (with Sheen this time as David Frost).

Michael Sheen and Helen McRory are back as the Blairs with Dennis Quaid, doing a fine impersonation of Bill Clinton and Hope Davis who could be easily mistaken in looks and voice for the real Hilary Clinton.  Once again Peter Morgan has incorporated speeches and information in the public arena with creative sequences of conversations which were private but which are more than plausible here.  

Tony Blair was rather amazed to be so welcomed to Washington and to meet Bill Clinton before he became prime minister.  The two hit it off and seemed to have something of a united vision, Blair bringing up the tradition of the special relationship.  Clinton is the senior politician and the screenplay indicates how shrewd a politician and statesman he could be.  While the Monica Lewinsky situation looms quite large at this time, with the president’s denials, change of attitude and his further testimony in the context of impeachment, Tony Blair (who did not approve and who is taken aback at first with the media’s rather uncensored presentation and language about the affair) stood by Clinton and is quoted as saying that these personal matters did not affect his capacity to govern.

The immediate issue here for the special relationship is that of  Northern Ireland, with footage of the violence and glimpses of Gerry Addams.  The next critical issue is that of the Balkans and how Europe, NATO and the Americans dealt with the attacks of President Milosovich on Kosovo.  It is here that the idealism of Tony Blair, with some messianic touches, begins to emerge, along with the politics of being liked.  He and Clinton disagree, with Clinton clearly stating his hesitations and his reasons.  Blair went on the offensive in the US and the American media lapped him up, forcing Clinton’s hand.  The personal aspect of the special relationship cooled, even as we see the Clintons visiting the Blairs at the time of the 2000 American election.

With George W Bush in office, we see Blair becoming more of an opportunist using the special relationship and becoming friends with the new president (much to Clinton’s dismay).  He wonders whether Blair was the visionary that he initially thought he was.

This means that the screenplay tends to make Bill Clinton the moral arbiter of Tony Blair’s behaviour with his final disapproving  judgment.

Michael Sheen again brings Tony Blair to life, the eagerness, the political nous, the idealism, being forced into more pragmatic stances.  (Sheen makes Blair smile a lot – but in the final sequence with actual footage of the prime minister with George Bush, the real Tony Blair seems to smile more in happy acquiescence of the Bush friendship than Sheen does).

Helen McRory is given good lines and speeches as Cherie, the Blair household at a seemingly more modest 10 Downing Street, contrasting with the Clintons.  She provides an ‘earthing’ for her husband many a time.

Dennis Quaid is very good as Clinton – which must make Oliver Stone disappointed as he has made JFK, Nixon films and a film with both Bushes but has not tackled Clinton.  Hope Davis, perhaps in the light of Hilary Clinton’s life and work as Senator and Secretary of State, makes her a credible first lady with some dignity and wit (and tolerance for her husband).

In the wings, Adam Godley as chief adviser, Jonathan Powell, and Mark Bazeley as a strong lookalike spin doctor, Alistair Campbell (reprising his role from The Queen), remind us of the role of these powers behind the throne.

The film has been screened in America and nominated for Emmy awards.

One hopes there will be The Special Relationship II with Peter Morgan enlightening us by reconstructing phone calls and meetings between Tony Blair and George W Bush and, of course, the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath.

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