"The Special Relationship," which airs on HBO Saturday night, is not just the last film in Peter Morgan's admirable and ambitious Tony Blair trilogy, it is, regrettably, the least. "The Deal" (2003), also on HBO, launched Michael Sheen's canny and charming Blair as he claimed ascendancy over political colleague turned rival Gordon Brown, and three years later "The Queen" became the stuff of Oscar-winning legend. This time around, the act of crossing the pond seems to have confounded everyone involved.
"The Special Relationship" refers in general to the friendship between Britain and the United States and in particular to the one between Blair and Bill Clinton ( Dennis Quaid). We meet Blair as trembling acolyte to the Clintonian ideal of center-left politics. Still a candidate, the future prime minister comes to the U.S. to literally pick the brain of Clinton's team, who remind him that popular policy isn't enough—to win, you need a rock star.
Which is, in the end, what the film is lacking. Although it succeeds in illustrating how personal relationships between heads of state can inform international policy — in this case military intervention in Kosovo — it never quite captures the actual relationship of the title.
To be fair, Morgan has set his own bar very high, particularly with "The Queen." And as just about everyone who has tried it knows, it's difficult to share the stage with Bill Clinton. But it doesn't help that Quaid is forced to hide his light under a bushel. Or in this case a Clinton wig, too much makeup and a very good but dramatically limiting vocal impersonation.
Quaid is an inspired choice for Clinton — he's got the grin, he's got the twinkle, he's got the easygoing charm that seems to mask a deep pain of one sort or another. Why he felt he had to go the impersonation route is a question only he and director Richard Loncraine can answer. But the initial staginess of the performance, especially in comparison with Sheen's Blair, which by this time is literally second nature, bogs down early scenes so thoroughly that by the time Quaid loosens up, it's almost too late.
Blair, meanwhile, is scripted with much less political savvy or personal edginess than in either of the two previous films. Once again we are treated to the middle-class muddle of the Blair house, with its breakfast dishes and stacks of schoolbooks shouting its contrast with the stately elegance of the White House, and the acerbic wit of Helen' McCrory's Cherie Blair. Cherie views her husband's infatuation with Clinton with the same loving impatience she expressed for his admiration for the queen. (Cherie always has the best lines — here, it may be her observation that the two men are very similar "except for the tarty women.")
But the Blair of "The Special Relationship" is far too idealized to be believed, seeming to make decisions based solely on the goodness of his heart, his lip all but trembling when others, especially Clinton, do not do the same. The only prickly part of this Blair is his perpetual irritation at the European Community, but then you can always get away with picking on the French. Clinton, meanwhile, becomes the villain of the piece, offering aid (rebuking the IRA) when it comes at no cost to him and withholding it when it might.
Political events are quickly eclipsed by the Monica Lewinsky scandal and, between Clinton's raspy mendaciousness and Blair's rabbity true-blueness, it's all too easy for Hope Davis' Hillary Clinton to steal the show. As with Quaid, Davis has been coached, costumed and groomed within an inch of her acting life but an inch, apparently, is all Davis requires. Her Hillary is softer than we are accustomed to seeing the current Secretary of State portrayed, but just as smart and sharp and thoroughly political. Indeed, one is left wishing for a film in which Hillary and Cherie are the stars.
In the end, the stage is set for Blair's more remarkable relationship with Clinton's replacement, President George W. Bush. And it is in the final scenes that "The Special Relationship" packs the most punch, underlining Clinton's personal and political bitterness and Blair's decision that a special relationship with a president whose views counter his own is better than none at all. Clinton is allowed a brief moment of wisdom, Blair cannot avoid owning his personal political ambition, and Morgan's trilogy is allowed to exit with almost as much power as it entered.
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