There’s a nice moment in The Special Relationship, the third film starring Michael Sheen as Britain’s prime minister Tony Blair, in which Blair listens to his wife, Cherie (the always excellent Helen McCrory), read his press clippings. Blair has just openly criticized President Bill Clinton’s Kosovo policy in a speech delivered in Chicago, and the American press is treating him like a superhero. Sheen is wearing only a towel, and his slightly pudgy, pale frame and boyish features are in sharp contrast to the hyperbolic words. But, for a time, Tony Blair was a political hero, and now he has the movie trilogy to prove it. Unfortunately, like most superhero trilogies, the third outing, while decent television viewing, is the weakest of the three.
Sheen first played Blair in the 2003 television film The Deal, and then later in the 2006 feature film The Queen. Both were written by Peter Morgan and directed by Stephen Frears, but only Morgan is back for The Special Relationship; this time, Richard Loncraine directed, and the material he was given is not nearly as compelling as in the first two features. The biggest problem is that the central conceit, an exploration of Blair and Clinton’s bromance, is not as dynamic as the filmmakers think it is. They’ve grafted a story arc onto the relationship, one in which a shy Blair becomes initially enamored by Clinton’s charm and forcefulness, then turns adversarial in the wake of Milosevic’s genocidal regime in Yugoslavia.
Dennis Quaid plays Clinton, and while he nails the raspy Southern voice, he doesn’t quite get Clinton’s charm. The makeup used to mold his face into a vaguely Clinton-like mask makes him look like an angry Chris Cooper. Hope Davis fares much better as a no-nonsense Hillary Clinton; her performance is less mimicry, more character, and watching her navigate the Monica Lewinsky scandal is the most compelling section of the film.
The Special Relationship attempts to explore the way in which the fragile personal moments of politicians’ lives ripple out and affect larger global issues. The Lewinsky affair, and Blair’s subsequent unconditional support of Clinton, ends up changing the tenor of the two leaders’ relationship, which in turn changes the way in which Blair feels free to call on Clinton’s support in Yugoslavia. It’s interesting, but ultimately it’s not really a big enough idea to build the film around, and while The Special Relationship wants to be about cause and effect, it ends up feeling just plain episodic.
The film ends with George W. Bush becoming president, and with a warning from Clinton to Blair to be careful of the new regime. Cut to actual footage of Blair and Bush at Camp David, in their first mutual press conference, Bush cracking unfunny jokes and Blair looking on with a frozen smile on his face. We now know that Blair’s willingness to follow Bush into two wars resulted in his own political downfall. It would make an interesting movie, and there’s no reason to think it won’t become one, and no reason to think it won’t be a more compelling story than this one.