The third film to explore the career of Tony Blair is a well staged drama about his political relationship with Bill Clinton.
Screenwriter Peter Morgan previously dramatised key periods in the career of the former British Prime Minister in The Deal (2003) and The Queen (2006), both of which were directed by Stephen Frears.
The latest film charts Blair’s relations with Clinton in the 1990s as he sought to form an alliance with a political soul mate who could package ‘third-way’ liberal politics to an electorate that had fallen for Thatcher and Regan.
The bulk of it deals with Blair (Michael Sheen) and Clinton (Dennis Quaid) debating various issues in the late 1990s, whilst Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) and Hilary Clinton (Hope Davis) look on and provide commentary on this transatlantic relationship.
The two major issues at this time were the Monica Lewinsky scandal which engulfed Clinton’s presidency and the Kosovo conflict in which Blair pressed his politically weakened US ally into military intervention.
Sheen can now do Blair blindfolded, so it is no surprise that he gives a convincing portrayal of the period when the former PM began to become enamoured with power and military intervention.
Quaid offers an impressive take on Clinton, which goes beyond surface mannerisms to suggest that, for all his flaws, he was a shrewd observer of political minefields.
Davis also manages to convey the cadences and mannerisms of Hilary Clinton with enough skill and class to suggest that she could have her own biopic.
But aside from offering accurate depictions of famous politicians, what is this film actually saying?
Essentially, it is a cautionary tale written from a post-Iraq perspective.
The energetic Blair, in his rush to war, is meant to mirror the later version that joined forces with George W Bush for the war which would ultimately wreck his legacy.
Although this means there is plenty of dramatic irony, often it feels a bit too cute. Clinton’s soothsaying speeches imbue him with an improbable amount of foresight and the script’s episodic nature means it occasionally feels like a current affairs checklist.
Technically, director Richard Loncraine handles everything with a good deal of assurance and the performances, production design, costumes and visuals all give it an authentic feel.
Compared to the previous films in which Sheen has played Blair, it comfortably fits into the trajectory Morgan has scripted. But as to how these films will age is another point.
This year has seen Blair loom large again after standing down in 2007. Just last month he released his unapologetic political memoirs and back in the spring Roman Polanski directed The Ghost, which offered a fictionalised version of Blair played by Pierce Brosnan.
This vision is perhaps the darkest Morgan has yet painted, offering a political figure convinced of his own righteousness and the need to see the world in black and white.
As such it foreshadows his determination to invade Iraq after 9/11. But whether this film fully sells this idea is open to question.
Would Blair have done it had 9/11 not happened? Morgan seems to suggest that is the case but it is certainly debatable issue right at the heart of the drama.
The end result is polished, but it seems to suggest ideas and conclusions which are shaky and speculative, to say the least.
One scene towards the end stretches credibility in terms of dialogue, as though everything is being tailored to fit a preconceived framework.
Whether you buy some of the notions in the film depends how how planned political power actually is – I tend to opt for the view that it may be more fluid and messy than The Special Relationship suggests.
However, this is still a film that contains much to enjoy. Although this political sub-genre Morgan helped to kick-start has lost some of its novelty, it is still a pleasure to see recent history examined on screen in an era of big-budget tentpoles and teen dramas about vampires.
Given the theatrical success and Oscar recognition of The Queen, you might wonder why has this film hasn’t opened in cinemas.
It looks to all intents and purposes like a proper theatrical production, shot in widescreen with expensive production values, so why no cinema release?
As an HBO and BBC co-production, it premièred on HBO back in May and was initially scheduled for a UK theatrical opening that month, which was then cancelled.
Presumably, the distributors weren’t confident that a theatrical run was worth the cost and that a TV premiere was a better platform on which to launch the film.
It says a lot about the present commercial climate that the makers weren’t confident of opening a more serious political drama like this at cinemas, despite all the talent involved.
The Special Relationship the UK will screen on BBC Two tonight (Saturday 18th) and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday 20th September.
> Official BBC page / HBO site
> Buy The Special Relationship on DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon UK