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What’s so special about The Special Relationship?

I got to see the Irish premiere of Alice in Wonderland at the weekend, thanks to boards.ie and the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival, and afterwards there was a Q & A session with Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall. Michael Sheen casually remarked that we’d be seeing the last of Peter Morgan’s “Blair trilogy”, The Special Relationship, hitting screens in about mid-July-ish. It’s been on my must-see list for a while – and the Internet Movie Database had a release date in 2011 last time I checked – but I have to admit that I’m a bit surprised at this particular companion in the tradition “Tony Blair and x” double act format. The Deal gave us Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The Queen gave us Tony Blair and… well, take a guess. The Special Relationship gives us Tony Blair and a US President. Which one? Dennis Quaid (yes, Dennis Quaid) as Bill Clinton. Yep, that’s not the US President I was thinking of either.

The "Special" Relationship... It even sounds like a bro-mance...

It seems like a bit of a waste of a film – particularly the last time that Michael Sheen will play Tony Blair – on his relationship with William Jefferson Clinton. Don’t get me wrong, Blair is a fascinating figure, but he’s been part of one of the most interesting and complex political double acts since the Second World War, and it wasn’t with Clinton. Maybe we’ll eventually get a Tony Blair and George Bush film, with Tony Blair recast. He can be like a political James Bond, changing actor from film-to-film. Imagine, “Clive Owen is… Tony Blair”. However, odds are that any other Blair-related project will happen without the involvement of writer Peter Morgan and actor Michael Sheen, who have made the two films released so far such fun to watch. And their other collaborations, like Frost/Nixon, ain’t half-bad either.

It just seems a bit like ignoring the elephant in the living room. The twenty-first century has been defined by the special relationship between Britain and its former colony, but that isn’t really what we’ll see here. The contrast between Blair, the skilled negotiator and verbose statesman, and Bush, the gung-ho finger-on-the-button take-no-prisoners Commander-in-Chief, is one of the iconic images of our times: the smiling and curteous British Prime Minister who could always find the right words and the reactionary American President who couldn’t.

The first two films in the trilogy have dealt with seeping divides (between Old Labour and New Labour, between the royal family and the people they rule) and Blair’s capacity to bridge the gulf that forms, so it seemed almost logical to set the finale amid the divide between old world diplomacy and new world politics. So far the most in depth image of Bush and Blair to reach the big screen is a brief scene in Oliver Stone’s W., featuring that guy from The Fantastic Four and Amazing Grace – who, by the way, is not a patch on Michael Sheen. There is a scene of the two walking in the woods together where Tony urges George to be more patient… immediately follwed by a scene of George not being patient. Hardly a decent overview of one of the most complex geo-political alliances of modern times, is it? Instead, like the rest of the film, it was breezed over in an attempt to seem relatively inclusive (but, of course, there were important omissions).

The lesson to take from Stone’s attempt at a biography of a living President is arguably one of scope. The Bush presidency cannot be condensed down to a two-hour film. You need to narrow your gaze. Pick a single aspect and run with it. The Blair relationship would certainly seem to be an interesting angle from either perspective.

Apparently Peter Morgan did consider writing the movie to feature both Clinton and Bush. His reasons for removing the latter from the screenplay are surprisingly candid and straight-forward:

I couldn’t write him with any dignity or elegance. I don’t want to spend the time thinking about him. Everything that happened pre-9/11 is now Jurassic history and we’ve completely forgotten it and therefore to explore what happened 10 or 15 years ago is really, really interesting.

Hmm… I like that Bill Clinton is a man of more “dignity or elegance” than George W. Bush. I wonder if we’ll see Blair smoke a cigar in this film?

The truth is that it will be great to have Sheen and Morgan working together. And it’ll be nice to round off an excellent series of films on Tony Blair. My fundamental problem is that it may feel… unfinished. It’s like watching The Godfather, but turning off after Michael goes to Italy. There’s still a whole saga left ahead, a whole story left to tell.

That said, I’ll probably be among the first in line to see this, being a politics nut.

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