Although director Richard Loncraine didn’t instantly warm to the idea when I interviewed him, his semi-disapproval isn’t going to stop me from viewing HBO’s new telepic “The Special Relationship” as an ill-fated platonic love story, or as a political bromance.
Writer Peter Morgan’s third project built around different chapters in Tony Blair’s political career — you’ve seen “The Queen,” but you may have missed “The Deal” — focuses on the British Prime Minister’s bond with U.S. President Bill Clinton.
The title “The Special Relationship” refers to ties between the United States and the U.K., but it’s just as much about the special relationship that developed between Blair (Michael Sheen in his third expert tour-of-duty) and Clinton (Dennis Quaid), two men who initially didn’t seem to have that much in common, but would forge ties that would be both beneficial and harmful.
I focused on “The Special Relationship” as almost a “The Way We Were With Dudes” because the bromantic aspects are fresh and intriguing, while the political aspects rely too heavily on rehashing and reenacting the scandals and crises of the day.
More thoughts on “The Special Relationship” after the break…
The movie opens with a recording of Cole Porter’s “Friendship” and the Oscar Wilde quote, “True friends stab you in the front,” finding a somewhat timid Blair on a 1992 visit to Washington, where a Democratic Party strategist is explaining the Clintonian overhaul that brought the party back to the White House. The strategist talks about reshaping the party ideology and moving to the center, but his real point is this: You need a political superstar like Clinton to sell the changes.
Cut to four years later, where Blair has remade himself and the Labour Party and swept into power as a British Clinton. The first meeting between the two is a bit like a rock star meeting a garage band wannabe. Clinton is magnanimous and self-important and Blair is obsequious and eager-to-please. You only need to have a moderate historical background to recall the events between 1996 and 2000 that shifted the dynamic and occasionally left Blair feeling in control. And even though the movie ends in 2000, you only need the same moderate historical background to know that Blair’s relationship with Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, wasn’t nearly so special and beneficial. The dramatic irony of the past decade of international politics is a thread that runs through every second of “The Special Relationship,” if you happen to be paying attention.
Loncraine, a skilled journeyman, has always been an ally for actors, whether we’re talking about Ian McKellen in “Richard III,” Albert Finney in “The Gathering Storm” or Maggie Smith in “My House in Umbria.” The heart of “The Special Relationship” is its performances.
Sheen has been blessed and cursed to do some of his finest work opposite showier, higher profile turns by bigger names, whether Helen Mirren in “The Queen” or Frank Langella in “Frost/Nixon.” It’s almost inexcusable that in both of those films, Sheen’s co-stars earned tickets to Oscar night and he was shut out. But with each Oscar snub, and each paycheck gig like “Twilight Saga: New Moon,” Sheen’s profile keeps rising.
Although Sheen doesn’t look exactly like Blair or sound exactly like Blair, this three-film performance has been admirable at every turn. “The Special Relationship” covers a longer period in Blair’s life and, as such, he has a clear arc as an expert politician coming into his own. In this case, Sheen lays bare the character’s progression, while the aforementioned dramatic irony does the rest to make the performance unexpectedly heartbreaking. Sheen has been well-paired with Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair for the past two films.
Again, though, Sheen is likely to find himself overshowed by a bigger name actor delivering a broader performance. Dennis Quaid is in one of those tough positions where you almost can’t play Bill Clinton for drama, even if major beats take place during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. You can play Clinton for comedy — see John Travolta in “Primary Colors” — without event trying because the accent, the perpetually hoarse voice, the mannerisms, the appetites… You want to laugh.
Quaid is initially distracting. You can’t just jump into his performance and accept him immediately. I had initial misgivings and was ready to condemn him, but Quaid long-ago mastered the art of playing puckish Southern good ol’ boys and his Clinton works best when it’s short on mimicry and long on Quaid turning on his own charm, utilizing his own devilish grin, his own penitent pout. When Quaid’s Bill Clinton becomes a close sibling to the actor’s Jerry Lee Lewis or his characters from “The Right Stuff” or “Everybody’s All America” or “Flesh and Bone,” the performance becomes logical and believable.
Opposite Quaid is Hope Davis as Hillary. Davis has to overcome looking and sounding too young, but it’s intentionally a much less brittle and arch version of the woman than Emma Thompson played in “Primary Colors.” She conveys the affection and drive of a woman who was almost an equal partner in the White House. I also went back and watched some YouTube clips of Hillary from that period, as opposed to the more familiar Candidate Hillary, and Davis’ cadences are perfect.
Expect all of the actors to make the Emmy short-list, because that’s just how HBO works.
Too often Morgan’s script falls into an laundry list approach to the historical events and it tries to cover to much ground, leaving Loncraine to insert news footage to fill in the gaps (and inform the forgetful). You can sense that the storytellers would rather be delving into different chapters in more depth, but that depth has been sacrificed in favor of a conventional romantic back-and-forth, with each spouse gaining and losing the upper hand. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have preferred to see an entire movie focusing just on Lewinsky or just on Kosovo, but those movies might not have felt as historically gutted as this sometimes does.
Also, because the relationship structure is so conventional, we sometimes miss the moments of enlightenment that “The Queen” and the chunks of “The Deal” that I’ve seen often seemed to have. Those films concentrated more on the sides of the story that the public never got to see, the back room and parlor room chats, while too much of “The Special Relationship” is reenactments of press conferences or TV appearances.
I still recommend the movie. Watch for Sheen, McCrory, Quaid and Davis and then, when it gets to be two-thirds of the way through, start thinking about “The Way We Were.” I swear, it works.
“The Special Relationship” airs on Saturday, May 29 at 9 p.m. on HBO.