The Special Relationship
Over the weekend, I checked out HBO’s original movie, “The Special Relationship”. The movie centers on the relationship between Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in the late 1990s. It’s funny. Over the last decade, I had come to associate Blair so strongly with Bush that I had almost forgotten about the relationship he originally forged with Clinton.
Blair is played by Michael Sheen. This marks the third time Sheen has played Tony Blair following “The Deal” and “The Queen”. Obviously, Sheen bears a striking resemblance to a young Tony Blair. Sheen has made a career so far of playing charismatic and ambitious characters like Blair and David Frost. He’s got the right mix of shiftiness and idealism to make these characters likable in spite of their flaws.
Clinton is portrayed by Dennis Quaid. Quaid’s an excellent actor and he really nailed the Clinton rasp. But he doesn’t resemble Clinton in the same way Sheen resembles Blair. I read that Quaid gained 35 pounds to play the part and that he did so by eating McDonald’s every day. But even 35 pounds heavier, Quaid still looked too much the athlete to be Bill Clinton. Also, his mannerisms weren’t quite as Clintonesque as other actors who have played the role.
Although Quaid’s Clinton impression isn’t quite as spot-on as one might like, his performance is excellent. He may not fool you into thinking he’s the real guy. But he conveys a sense of the kind of man Clinton was. Early on, when Clinton is at the peak of his popularity, Quaid conveys a swagger that is part idealism and part arrogance.
Later in the film when the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks, that swagger is replaced by nervous fidgeting. And the arrogance turns to anger. I won’t say the performance is quite “warts and all” because from what I hear Clinton has a terrible temper that is only hinted at here. But I think Quaid’s performance is as fair a representation of Bill Clinton as you could ask for.
The real break-out for me was Hope Davis as Hillary Clinton. Like Sheen, Davis bears a strong resemblance to the character she portrays. Davis’ Hillary is fascinating. She’s strong and smart. She’s fully aware of what her husband is capable of both good and bad. And yet, she makes the decision to suffer personal indignities for the good of her family and her political career.
Bill Clinton was the first president I ever voted for. He was my guy. But like a lot of people, I had a fairly negative view of Hillary during the Clinton’s time in the White House. The media portrayed her as a shrew with Lady MacBeth like ambition. But over the years, my view of Hillary has really changed.
It wasn’t until I read about Hilary’s failed bid for the 2008 democratic nomination that I really started to see Hillary Clinton as more than the one-dimensional character she is typically portrayed as in the media. For one thing, I realized that Bill has been a real obstacle for Hillary at times in her career. And yet, she stands by him.
Last week, everyone was shocked to read about the separation of Al and Tipper Gore after 40 years of marriage. No one ever knows why some marriages work and others don’t. But I think it’s admirable that the Clintons have managed to stick together through it all. And you have to give most of the credit for that to Hillary, I think.
The movie captures a certain tenderness between Bill and Hillary that you don’t often see. I’m not sure if it’s there in real life or not. But you have to think it must be for them to have stuck it out this long. I really enjoyed seeing these new dimensions to the Clintons.
The movie also captures the disappointment Clinton supporters felt when they realized that the Lewinsky allegations were based in fact. I always thought (and still do) that Ken Starr was a scumbag. There was really no reason for Clinton’s personal affairs to become national matters other than the fact that Starr was bound and determined to take Clinton down by any means necessary.
But when you slowly realized that Clinton had fallen into a trap and perjured himself, you couldn’t help but be disappointed. While Ken Starr and his ilk were wrong to trump up charges based around Clinton’s personal life, Clinton never should have put himself in this position. Even as a Clinton supporter, you couldn’t help but back away from him a little.
In the movie, Hillary takes the stance right away that the allegations are false and part of the “vast, right-wing conspiracy” that had plagued the Clintons since they arrived at the White House. But all the while, Davis shows that Hillary knew there might be more to it. And slowly, she comes to grips with what her husband has done to her family and to their political careers.
At the beginning of the film, Sheen’s Blair is enamored of Clinton. He has remodeled himself to be the British equivalent of Clinton. But when Clinton fails to back him fully on Kosovo because it would be political suicide during his impeachment hearings, Blair gives a press conference that more or less stabs Clinton in the back.
The film ends with Clinton and Blair watching Al Gore’s concession speech in 2000. I was surprised to find out that this scene was based in historical fact. Clinton asks Blair what his intentions are with Bush. He warns him that Bush is bad news based on how he ran his campaign and arguably stole the election. But Blair knows that in order to maintain the base of power he built up during the Clinton years, he would need to stay close to the office even if the president had changed.
The scene is really fascinating. Clinton, still wounded from his fall from power and Blair’s semi-betrayal, calls Blair out on his ambition and accuses him of posing as a liberal. Blair doesn’t deny any of the allegations. You can see he is already thinking ahead to the partnership he will form with Bush.
The last scene in the movie is a clip of Bush and Blair at a press conference after Bush’s election. This scene isn’t a re-enactment. It’s actually footage of Bush and Blair. And you can see the entire dynamic of what’s to come in this press conference. Bush jokes around like the inept Texas frat boy that he was and Blair just squirms uncomfortably.
I would love to see a follow-up to “The Special Relationship” focusing on Blair and Bush. As we now know, Blair made a deal with the devil when he aligned himself with Bush. And ultimately, it led to his political downfall just as his partnership with Clinton brought him into power. I think this would make for an equally fascinating film.