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The Tony Blair Trilogy Part III: The Special Relationship

May 22nd, 2014

Following The Deal (click here for my review) and The Queen (click here for my review), Peter Morgan went on to write a third film about Tony Blair, one that, like The Deal and The Queen before it, would also star Michael Sheen as Mr. Blair: the HBO film The Special Relationship.

This is a most bizarre and special trilogy.  The first film, The Deal, was made for British television.  The second film, The Queen, was a huge critical success in the U.S. and saw its star Helen Mirren receive an Academy Award for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II.  The third and final (at least so far!) film, The Special Relationship, aired on HBO.  (I’d love to know the backstory behind that.  After the success of The Queen, I am stunned its follow-up didn’t receive a theatrical release!)

The fact that The Special Relationship wasn’t shown in theatres, and that Stephen Frears, who had directed the first two films, don’t return to direct this one, led me to worry that perhaps The Special Arrangement was a lesser offering.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  I found The Special Arrangement to be absolutely marvelous, fascinating and entertaining.

The film covers a large span of time.  It opens in the days before Mr. Blair became Prime Minister (so some-time in the middle of The Deal), then shifts to show us Mr. Blair’s first day in office (these events were also depicted in The Queen).  The film then moves forward and chronicles the next several years in which Mr. Blair served as Prime Minister while Bill Clinton was President of the United States, ending shortly after the end of Mr. Clinton’s second term.

The term “the special relationship” has often been used to describe the close relation ship between the Unites States and the United Kingdom.  This film explores the relationship between the two countries and between the two young, charismatic, center-left politicians who had found themselves, in the Nineties, in control of their respective countries after a lengthy period of Conservative leadership: Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.  Every bit as important to the story of the film are their wives: Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair.  The complex dynamic between all four players of the two power couples forms the center of the film’s narrative.

I was fascinated by the way the film charts the arc of, in particular, the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.  When the film opens, Tony Blair comes across as somewhat naive and inexperienced, in awe of the polished Clinton and his prowess on the world stage.  We see that Mr. Clinton plays a critical role in helping Mr. Blair achieve a stabilization to the situation in Northern Ireland.  But then the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks, and not only does Mr. Blair find his faith in his political role-model shaken, but he finds himself forced to take a tough, adversarial position to Mr. Clinton on certain issues.  By the end of the film, it’s Mr. Clinton who comes across as the more straightforward one, while Mr. Blair seems the shrewd, it’s-not-personal-it’s-just-business political operative.

I am not sure if any of that is in any way accurate.  Even more so than in The Deal and The Queen, there were many times during The Special Relationship when I found myself wondering how closely the film hewed to fact.  So many scenes in the film take place behind closed doors, showing us the private interactions between Bill and Hillary and between Tony and Cherie.  No matter how well-researched this film might be, there’s so much of it that feels like extrapolation and guess-work.  Maybe very educated extrapolation, but extrapolation nonetheless.

This doesn’t weaken the film, but I think it’s important to keep in mind.  I view The Special Relationship as a fascinating piece of educated guesswork, and as such I found it quite intriguing.

As in The Queen, I was impressed by what a measured portrayal this was of all the main characters.  An easier version of this story might have tried to vilify one or more of these four main characters (Tony, Cherie, Bill, and Hillary).  But while The Special Relationship certainly shows us each character’s flaws, none of them come off that badly.  Quite the contrary, this is a fairly positive portrayal of all four of these characters.  This is what I really hope all four are really like.

The main cast is phenomenal.  Michael Sheen’s work as Tony Blair is so naturalistic, so lived-in by this point that in my mind he is 100% synonymous with the real Mr. Blair.  What an achievement to have played this character over the course of three films.  Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid is every bit his match as Bill Clinton.  I was blown away by Mr. Quaid’s performance.  He looks the part, and sounds the part.  He’s incredible at duplicating so many of Mr. Clinton’s famous physical and vocal mannerisms, but this never felt like an SNL caricature to me.  He brings Bill Clinton to life in an extraordinary way.

Helen McCrory has, like Michael Sheen, played this role in three films now, and her chemistry with Mr. Sheen is wonderful.  Of these four characters, I have the least idea what the real Cherie Blair is like, so I can’t really compare Ms. McCrory’s performance to the real woman.  But I can say that she’s wonderfully beguiling in the role, intelligent and sharp, and like Mr. Sheen she has grown, in my mind, to truly BE this character.  Hope Davis, meanwhile, is a revelation as Hillary Clinton, the best depiction of Ms. Clinton I have ever seen on screen.  As with Mr. Quaid, it is uncanny how much she has been made up to look like the real Mrs. Clinton.  (Mad props to the costume and make-up departments.)  And as with Mr. Quaid, Ms. Davis absolutely nails the vocal mannerisms of the real Ms. Clinton.  It’s incredible, a ton of fun to watch.

All through this film, I found myself wishing that Peter Morgan would go ahead and write a fourth film, one that would chronicle Mr. Blair’s relationship with George W. Bush.  That particular pairing is, to me, every bit as complex and intriguing as Mr. Blair’s relationship with Mr. Clinton.  It also feels like the needs-to-be-told ending to the story, as Mr. Blair’s support for the Iraq war would ultimately prove to be his political undoing.

But the final scenes of The Special Relationship are so perfect that they almost render a fourth film unnecessary.  In the film’s closing moments, we see Mr. Clinton watching, late at night, Al Gore’s 200o concession speech and George W. Bush’s acceptance speech.  Mr. Clinton seems utterly beaten in this moment, watching his legacy seeming to vanish before his eyes.  He advises Tony Blair to distance himself from the Conservative Bush presidency, asking Mr. Blair: “What business does a progressive center-left politician from a tiny little island in Europe have making friends with folks like that?”  And then, in what I think is the most key moment in all three films, Mr. Clinton looks Mr. Blair right in the eye and says: “But then again, I’m not sure whether you ARE a progressive center-left politician anymore.  Or if you ever were.”

Is that the point that Peter Morgan has spent three films building towards?  Is that the case that he has been carefully making?  I think it is, and I think that scene makes a fourth film unnecessary, because — as much fun as it would be to watch that fourth film, and to spend more time with these characters and these wonderful actors — we all know what would eventually happen, and I think history proves that Mr. Clinton in this scene was absolutely right.  (Of course, getting back to what I’d written earlier, I have no idea whether this interaction ever actually happened.  I think it’s rather likely that it did NOT.  But man, what a scene that is in the film!)

If you’re a political junkie, I think The Special Relationship is essential viewing.  Even if you’re not, I found it to be a thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking drama.  This was terrific.  Forget everything I wrote in those last few paragraphs, Mr. Morgan — please get to work on a fourth film!!

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