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Non-Review Review: The Special Relationship

The third part of Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen’s superb “Tony Blair trilogy” seems perfectly timed. In fact, being honest, I’m surprised that HBO couldn’t muster up enough enthusiasm for a small-scale cinematic release, what with Blair’s political memoir A Journey doing the rounds at the moment (I’m working my way through it and it’s probably the best political memoir I’ve read since Churchill). Blair is easily one of the most fascinating political leaders of the last few decades, and Morgan does well to juxtapose him against perhaps his greatest political influence: Bill Clinton. Still, all that being said, and with this reportedly the final part of the trilogy, it might have been best to focuse on his relationship with the leader who most strongly defined his legacy. However, Morgan has admitted time and time again that he simply didn’t want to write Bush. While I’m happy with what we got, it doesn’t exactly feel like a fitting coda.

Bro's before interns accusing you of gross impropriety...

My better half uttered the following comment on the film: “Bromantic to the point of hilarity”. And she’s right. Morgan takes the structure of a romance and builds his film around it. We see the flirtation between Blair and Clinton. Both are starstruck, confiding it to their friends – in this case, to keep the bromantic undertones going, their wives. Cherie describes Tony’s fixation as a “crush”, only half jokingly. Clinton aloud to Hillary wonders how a woman like Cherie ended up with a hunk like Tony, “quite a catch”. The two of them exchange long and meaningful glances across a press conference or three. When asked for the political reason that Blair remained in close communion with Clinton during the impeachment crisis, the British Prime Minister claims he isn’t looking for political capital, “I did it because I like him.”

Morgan even borrows the familiar third-act divide between the two. In this case, Blair’s address in Chicago over the Bosnian crisis, in which he shows a dynamism and hunger for “boots on the ground” intervention that Clinton had no hunger for. It becomes a lover’s spat, a breakdown of trust. Clinton had promised to consider military action, but just between the two of them – keep it private, a sacred trust. Blair can’t trust him in the wake of the Lewinski scandal, “He’s lied to everyone else!” And so politics comes between the two.

The perfect 10?

It’s interesting to note that Morgan adopts the somewhat conventional portrayal of Hillary Clinton (“isn’t she something?” Bill asks at one point) – a fiercely independent woman who has learnt to live with Bill. In the midst of the Lewinski affair, she practically abandons him and distances herself – an understandable move, to be frank. She has to handle this “by myself”. The pair communicate over cellular phones – despite the distance (and it is great) they still trust each other, Bill in particular defers to her judgement and needs her approval and endorsement. However, the distance between Bill and Hillary only serves to illustrate the closeness between Blair and Clinton. It’s almost as if Morgan wishes to suggest the two leaders are closer than man and wife.

Morgan astutely connects the American President to Blair, opening with Tony attending a Democratic Party think-in with Clinton’s policy advisers. Perhaps seeing a similarity between the Democratic Party (adrift before Clinton) and the British Labour Party (even more adrift before Blair), the then-leader-of-the-opposition wants to learn how Clinton revitalised the party and restored it to power. “Policy will only get you so far,” one talking head suggests. He even lends Blair a soundbyte or two, suggesting that the left needs to be seen as “tough on the causes of crime” (although the movie lets Blair intuite the rest). This is style over substance, and Morgan suggests (probably correctly) that Blair imported it wholesale – his was an image that could be stamped “made in America”. And modelled on one particular American at that. As his wife notes, Blair has “Clinton hair, Clinton suits; everything minus the tarty girlfriend”.

The movie is fascinating, but it does lack the visceral appeal of The Queen. Perhaps it’s because while the dilemma face in The Queen – the role of the monarchy in modern Britain – is inherently more social and abstract than the political quandries discussed here – which are rooted in a definite time and place, in this case Serbia during the nineties. Perhaps it’s also because the movie is a damnsight more political – perhaps even moreso than the first film in the trilogy, The Deal.

Morgan’s portrayal of Blair deserves points for complexity. Indeed, so does his portrayal of Clinton. Neither are perfect individuals, nor are they the villains their detractors would have you believe. Blair himself is granted a strong moral conscience and personal moral fortitude throughout the film. Although Morgan may question his credentials as a left-wing politician behind the slick facade – “I’m not sure whether you are a progessive central left politician anymore,” Bill reflects at the end of the movie, adding, “Frankly, I’m not sure you ever were” – but he doesn’t doubt his sincere beliefs. Of the deposing of Milosevic, he argues, “I want to do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Aw... they're holding hands...

However, and this is something Clinton himself concedes, Blair speaks with moral certitude (he speaks of “our Christian duty”) which comes from the right wing, not the left. Indeed, the movie clearly points to the seed of Blair’s twenty-first century foreign policy, with Clinton warning about Bush and Cheney that “they play rough”. Indeed, in the aftermath of the victory in Eastern Europe, Blair declares that he has vindicated “the moral justification of invading another country for humanitarian reasons”. And here lies the movie’s central problem. It isn’t anything to do with politics or themes or content. It’s simply that this very clearly isn’t the movie that Peter Morgan wants to make.

He wants to tackle Blair’s later years, which he heavily foreshadows here. There are echoes and hints of the relationship between Blair and Bush and of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it feels strange to foreshadow events in the final part of your trilogy. It feels awkward that Morgan is hinting at things he will never fully explore on film, so he has to write them into a script about a different time and place. Which is a shame, because I would love a film about the relationship between Bush and Blair, but I don’t need it shoehorned into a film that already has enough going on.

That said, it’s a well-made film. It’s essentially a small scale intimate drama that deals with global events. The cast is relatively smale. And yet writer Morgan and director Richard Loncraine manage to make it seem more. It’s hard to fill European Parliament meetings and spin-doctor meetings with a sense of drama, but these two do a pretty damn good job.

However, as with The Queen, the film rests on the lead performances. Michael Sheen is – as everywhere else – absolutely great. He was born to play Blair and doesn’t offer a simple impersonation so much as he attempts to craft a character. However, Dennis Quaid takes a somewhat different approach to Clinton, in a performance (not helped by his make-up) that veers dangerously close to Saturday Night Live parody. Eventually you get used to it, and it’s a decent performance, but it’s no Helen Mirren as the Queen. However, Hope Davis steals the show as Hillary. It’s a wonderfully nuanced performance and one befitting the material.

The Special Relationship is a great film for anyone interested in politics. While it doesn’t have the same popular appeal as The Queen does, it offers a wonderful portrayal of an enduring political friendship. It’s weakened by the fact that Clinton isn’t exactly the United States President you think of when you mention Tony Blair and “the special relationship”, but it is still an entertaining and – in parts – enlightening film.

One Response

  1. I’d never thought of it as a love story, but upon further reflection, yeah, it is.

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