USA and UK on HBO: The Special Relationship; Not-So-Special TV

A new HBO movie reminds us of a time when American presidents didn’t see fit to return cherished gifts to our British allies or ply them with iPods stuffed with their “greatest” speeches.

The Special Relationship, debuting at 9 p.m. EST on May 29, recalls the fast friendship between U.S. President Bill Clinton and his British counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The two leaders represented a new era in global politics, or so they thought, one that would allow them to modulate their liberal ideals to appear more centrist to their respective voters.

Events would get in the way, of course, from ethnic cleansing in Kosovo to a certain stained blue dress.

But the curious pairing is just enough to make Relationship worth your while. Barely.

The film’s simplistic dialogue and painfully self-aware recreations make it only a few notches better than your standard made-for-TV feature. Yet it’s a fine excuse to enjoy one of the most underappreciated actors around.

At this point, if Michael Sheen decided to give an actual speech as Blair few folks would bat an eye. The ebullient actor already portrayed the prime minister in The Queen and The Deal, and he’s equally effective here playing the Labour Party leader.

The film opens with Blair on the cusp of becoming his country’s next prime minister -- all he needs is one last push to seal the deal.

President Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid) does the honors for him with a well-timed PR gambit, starting a professional relationship that will impact both their lives in profound ways.

The leaders’ bond suffers a critical blow when news leaks that Clinton may have had an inappropriate relationship with an intern. Will Blair stick by his new mate, and if so will he pay a price for unvarnished loyalty?

The Special Relationship rarely soars, and you can blame the way the screenplay rushes through recent history as if screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen) knew audiences would remember all the details left out anyway.

We get lightning-fast resolutions to major problems like the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland and watch as Bill Clinton takes Blair to task for defying his orders regarding the possible use of ground troops.

The meatiest part of the film involves the NATO air strikes to take down Slobodan Milosevic, but even these sequences lack the insight needed to elevate them beyond a CliffsNotes primer.