USA and UK on HBO: The Special Relationship; Not-So-Special TV
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.
The Special Relationship stumbles over the same roadblocks other ripped-from-the-headlines projects endure. Quaid gamely tries mimicking Clinton, but the performance brings to mind a half dozen impersonators during Clinton’s eight years in office. The steel gray wig and raspy voice leave Quaid helpless to leave his mark on the 42nd president.
You hope against hope Quaid won’t be forced to say “I did not have sex with that woman … Miss Lewinsky,” because the moment is permanently etched in our minds.
And yet that’s exactly what we see, as well as other greatest hits from the Clinton archives -- like Hillary‘s “vast right-wing conspiracy“ shtick.
The film doesn’t avoid the Monica Lewinsky affair. In fact, it takes up a large chunk of the narrative and makes the president look like an even bigger boob than we remember. We see Blair rallying by the side of his new friend and watch the Clinton spin machine hit overdrive in the hopes of chasing the story away.
Relationship doesn’t include a filmed sequence in which Bill Clinton first informs his wife of the affair, but it’s really besides the point.
The film reflects how the “special relationship” in question helped Clinton escape from the damage wrought by his pathetic urges.
Blair, by contrast, is a cross between a boy scout and a pit bull, a hyper-idealized politician who simply must do the right thing at all costs. It’s a minor miracle that Sheen can add layers to such a stiffly imagined portrait.
Hope Davis is nearly as potent playing First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. The makeup team didn’t go into overdrive to make the actress look exactly like the current secretary of state. Instead, she captures the woman’s penchant for bare-knuckled rhetoric.
It’s hardly a shock to see the Clintons portrayed as a wonderfully balanced couple, twin rock stars who don’t sweat the occasional infidelity.
At times, Relationship feels like it’s pining for a 2012 "Hillary for President" campaign. The Blairs marvel at the “co-presidency” at work in the Oval Office.
“There’s something quite romantic about that,” says Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair, the prime minister’s saintly spouse.
Americans who recall Bill Clinton’s numerous escapades will find little romantic about their pairing.
HBO is becoming the go-to place for political dramas based on recent events, and the template is growing stale. The gentle leftward tilt. The famous actors portraying events still too fresh in our minds. The lazy use of news clips to patch the narrative together.
The Special Relationship suffers from all of the above, yet the dynamic performances of Sheen and Davis give the film a sense of purpose that may surprise some.