TV preview: Falling out of love with a fixation in 'The Special Relationship'

HBO's new movie explores the professional and personal relationship between former U.S. president Bill Clintion and former British prime minister Tony Blair during each's rise to power in the early-1990s. "The Special Relationship" airs on Sat., May 29 at 9 p.m. ET
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

"The Special Relationship," airing Saturday night on HBO, is the last in a trilogy of films, each written by Peter Morgan, that view life and political duty in the ever-more-distant 1990s through the conflicted soul of former British prime minister Tony Blair. Each film has turned Blair (played once more by Michael Sheen) into a sincere and almost unbelievably naive searcher. He presents a calm, collected, media-savvy front and yet, behind closed doors, seems riddled with doubt.

The first movie was "The Deal" in 2003, which observantly dramatized Blair's rise to prominence. And everyone loved the second part, "The Queen," which recounted the delicate protocol skirmishes that immediately followed the death of Princess Diana. It was released in theaters and was up for a Best Picture Oscar in 2007. (Helen Mirren won Best Actress in the title role.)

For some reason, Morgan and company feel they have one more story to tell, although "The Special Relationship" really belabors (pun intended) the point and our patience. And I can't avoid the inevitable anymore: Dennis Quaid is truly awful in the role of President Bill Clinton, the other half of "The Special Relationship's" special relationship. It's so bad that I insist everyone inside the Beltway watch it at least twice.

Fortunately, in the same breath, there is some good news: Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton. Wearing a set of buckteeth and displaying a masterful command of that quintessential Hillary people repellent, Davis shows a capability that surpasses Quaid's surprising ineptitude. This creates an eerie parallel to what the world has longed perceived as the prime dynamic in the Clintons' marriage, as the two must act out one of the decade's grisliest moments in public/private shame: the night Bill confesses to Hillary that he did, in fact, have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.

The rage with which Davis glowers at Quaid! Is it acting, or is she really peeved at Quaid, thinking to herself, Here I am nailing the part of Hillary and you're over there doing what -- Foghorn Leghorn?

There are museum animatronics doing better presidential imitations than Quaid. If I had been in director Richard Loncraine's shoes, a couple of days into filming, I would have gone on eBay and purchased one of those cardboard, life-size Bill Clinton cutouts and had Quaid carry that around in front of him while the cameras continued to roll and I frantically waited for "Saturday Night Live's" Darrell Hammond to return my phone calls.

Caked in makeup and searching for the accent and mannerisms, Quaid's Clinton is a constant distraction to "The Special Relationship" -- so much so that it became difficult to figure out what sort of movie Morgan, Loncraine and the cast set out to make here. Is it a foreign-policy drama? Is it pure Blair hagiography? Is it an imagined tale, built from fact and/or gossip, about two men who pretended to love one another and yet, perhaps, privately discovered a mutual loathing? Is it a British comment on how disgusting Washington is?

Right, it's about the tenuous but ever-present "special relationship," as Churchill coined it, between the United States and Britain -- and seen through a British prism. This special relationship is personified and solidified every so often between its elected leaders. Churchill and FDR had it, as did Reagan and Thatcher. Blair and Clinton found themselves -- after Clinton's second inauguration and Blair's landslide election in 1997 -- in what looked like a match made in moderate-progressive heaven.

Clinton, seen here as a man drenched in hubris, slavish to the task of buttressing his own historical legacy, proposes to Blair that they can form a transatlantic, lefty juggernaut. "We could put right-wing politics out of business for the next generation," Quaid drawls. "Hell, maybe forever!"

Oh well. The underlying disdain for politics and political culture in "The Special Relationship" is to be expected. Has anyone in the last 20 years, save perhaps Aaron Sorkin, ever made a film or television show that made politics or public service look like something to aspire to? (On a related note, are the '90s as politically interesting as some of us recall them being?)

The cartoonishness with which the Clintons are rendered in Morgan's screenplay is occasionally enjoyable as light comedy -- especially in the forced chumminess between the men and their wives on formal and social occasions. But "The Special Relationship" feels more like a B-roll clip job from a news archive, shelved and labeled Blair, Clinton, Kosovo, Lewinsky, Florida recount, large cellphones, etc., 1997-2000. It's possibly too soon to exhume this material and expect it to have fresh flair as a movie plot.

It's a shame, because Sheen is as enthusiastic a Blair as he's been in the previous two films; Helen McCrory, as a whip-smart and canny Cherie Blair, steals every scene she's in, especially as Cherie hectors her husband over his fawning humility in Bill Clinton's presence. "Clinton hair, Clinton tie, everything except the tarty girlfriend," she jests, as her husband frets about what to wear and how to look, and as he falls for the Clintonesque obsession with his own place in history.

And it's odd how flatly the Clinton sex scandal plays for even the most addicted of us political junkies, other than as a way for "The Special Relationship" to underline Blair's knack for saying just the right thing to the press at a moment of strenuous delicacy. The same aide from "The Queen" rushes into Blair's hotel room the same way he did in "The Queen" waving "all the papers" with "all the headlines" that praise and elevate Blair. Years too early, "The Special Relationship" is nostalgic for a feeling it can't quite express.

The Special Relationship

(two hours) premieres at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO.

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