The Special Relationship

New York Magazine columnist Bilge Ebiri recently commented how M Night Shyamalan falters when he moves away from the quiet, intense, dramatic moments and James Cameron stumbles when he moves away from large scale, action-driven mecha-worship. It was the perfect articulation about how so few films get everything just right.

Richard Loncraine (director of 2004s Paul Bettany/Kirsten Dunst tennis rom-com Wimbledon and Michael Palin vehicle The Missionary way back in 1982) may not be the only reason The Special Relationship works so well, but the film reminds you just how many filmmaking crafts combine to create the whole. Everything from the casting to the background music is almost perfect, and it shows how a film can accomplish so much without billion dollar effects or marketing.

It depicts the latter years of the 1990s when Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) and Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) ruled on either side of the Atlantic and – as Clinton excitedly tells Blair when they first meet – formed the first combined centre-left, progressive leadership of the English-speaking world in decades.

The hackneyed phrase that gives the movie its title was invented and peddled by New Labour apparatchiks. They were eager to stitch the successful Cool Britannia brand with that of the rock and roll, gay-friendly, black-friendly president to shake off the stuffy legacy of peerage and lordship that had stifled the UK under Tory rule.

But despite the ham-fisted politicking of the phrase, Peter (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland, Frost/Nixon) Morgan's script depicts the two men as forming a genuine affection for each other. Even though Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) and Hilary Clinton (Hope Davis) are both central to the plot it's really a strange sort of love story between two men who share an ideal but whose messy human desires and the machinations of international relations keep getting in the way.

From the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the escalating violence at the hands of Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, the political problems pile up, leaving Blair wondering if he has to force Clinton's hand for the good of hundreds of thousands of Serbs despite the embarrassment of impeachment proceedings Clinton faces at home.

The brilliance of the movie starts with the performers. Dennis Quaid can be a terrible ham at times (The Day After Tomorrow, Flight of the Phoenix , GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra) but his talent shines as the silver-haired, silver-tongued president. He has the high-pitched southern drawl just right and if you squint it's easy to believe you're watching the real Clinton. Better still is Hope Davis, portraying Hilary's blend of slightness but iron-willed resoluteness perfectly.

Sheen and McCrory as the Blairs are also excellent, but of course they've had plenty of practice – this is the third time in the role for Sheen, the second for McCrory.

If you're interested in history you'll get a satisfied thrill out of watching it unfold, no matter how dramatised or scripted. But where Loncraine puts his pacing and music to best effect is in making the story so dramatic. We know from real life politicians do little apart from talk, and it's usually anything but dramatic. But Chris Nolan showed us how thrilling a battle of wits could be between two stage magicians (The Prestige), and Loncraine uses Morgan's script to do the same here in building a sense of drama, almost of impending danger.

Like the film itself, The Special Relationship is the result of a US/UK collaboration, having been bankrolled by both HBO and BBC Films. But the story is told mostly from Blair's perspective, portraying him as the idealistic young leader who models himself on political heroes including Clinton and – like a kid growing up – learns that even heroes are fallible and that sometimes he has to stand on his own two feet.

The film employs liberal use of archive footage that only adds to the sense of realism, and the triumph of the end result is that no matter how made up, it all feels so true.

But one of The Special Relationship's biggest achievements is the final coda. After an early conversation, Clinton advises Blair to start thinking about the legacy he'll leave even though he's just entered office. As he leaves the presidency in 2000 he challenges Blair to keep fighting the good centre-left fight instead of getting into bed with the newly elected bad guy Republicans.

As history now tells us, Blair did the latter and his legacy is one of failure, having aligned himself to a president history remembers as an idiot and championing a series of unjust military actions. The final scene is an excruciating archived clip of the real Bush and Blair at Camp David, trying to convince the assembled press they're going to be great friends when it's obvious the two have no common ground. What had been a special relationship turned anything but.

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