In 1992, Labour leader Tony Blair goes to America and is impressed by the policies of President Bill Clinton, which he uses to reshape his party. Two years later, he is invited back for an audience with Clinton, who, rightly, predicts that he will be Britain's next Prime Minister. Thus begins the 'special relationship' between the two, though Clinton is clearly the senior partner with Blair seeking his advice on Northern Ireland. The situation in Kosovo however reverses the roles as Blair forces American intervention by a reluctant president and is seen in the American media as the hero of the hour. As Clinton accuses his ally of stabbing him in the back the special relationship starts to sour and, with Clinton ultimately out of the White House, Blair takes his first photo call with the next incumbent, George W. Bush.Written by
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Following the "secret" story of his election (The Deal) and his first major crisis (The Queen), writer Peter Morgan ends his unofficial Tony Blair trilogy with one of the most famous aspects of the man's political career: his friendship with US President Bill Clinton, and the hopes and problems that came with it.
The film, made as a co-production between BBC and HBO (where it premiered in May 2010, though it has been picked up for theatrical release in other countries), starts in slightly familiar territory, showing us Blair (played, once again, by Michael Sheen) before he was elected, and the same goes for Clinton (Dennis Quaid), who immediately befriends the British politician on the grounds that they have a lot in common: young (politically speaking), ambitious and eager to make a difference in their respective governments. Once both men are in office, the cooperation goes very smoothly, prompting the media - and the two friends themselves - to talk about a "special relationship" between America and Great Britain. However, like most relationships, it has to face some hard times, most notably the conflict in the former Jugoslavia and, on a more private front, the Lewinsky scandal, which drives a wedge between Bill and Hillary (Leslie Hope) and Tony and Cherie (Helen McCrory, reprising her role from The Queen).
Like most of Morgan's work, The Special Relationship puts a lot of emphasis on character and performance, especially Sheen who, by now, wears Blair's clothes and mannerisms like they were a second skin, a fact that becomes more evident when archive footage is used to show the man's first encounter with a very different Commander in Chief (one George W. Bush), and he's ably assisted by the excellent Quaid who, having already played a President in American Dreamz, gets past the not-so-perfect physical resemblance between himself and the real Clinton to deliver a fully formed portrayal of a flawed, but very charismatic individual. On the female side, Hope is the usual guarantee of quality, while McCrory is a bit of a revelation, taking advantage of the increase in screen-time she has been granted compared to The Queen.
That said, the film is probably the least dramatically poignant of the trilogy. Maybe it has to do with the change in the director's chair (goodbye Stephen Frears, hello Richard Loncraine), but the real reason is the excessive familiarity of the material: whereas The Deal and The Queen dealt with the unseen (and largely fictionalized) side of their respective stories, The Special Relationship centers around a piece of Anglo-American history that has been widely covered multiple times, meaning there's very little on screen, no matter how entertaining, that people haven't heard of before.
Overall, a slightly underwhelming but consistently amusing look at the workings of English and US politics, propelled by a flawless double act and some Aaron Sorkin-like writing. If this is the last we'll see of Michael Sheen as Tony Blair, one thing is clear: it's been a very pleasant experience.
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