TV on DVD Review: The Special Relationship (2010)

The Tony Blair Trilogy:
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As of this review, HBO's critically acclaimed biopic The Special Relationship marks both the final installment of what has informally come to be known as screenwriter Peter Morgan's “Tony Blair Trilogy” and also the sole entry in the series that follows the subsequent titles The Queen and The Deal not to be directed by Stephen Frears.

The Emmy and Golden Globe nominated work helmed by frequent HBO director Richard Loncraine (My House in Umbria, The Gathering Storm) features yet another masterful portrayal in the non-chronological trilogy by chameleon actor Michael Sheen, who by now is so synonymous with his role as Britain's former Prime Minister that as co-star Dennis Quaid jokes “he is Tony Blair.”

It's this instant recognition with the part that immediately adds credibility and urgency to the start of Loncraine's surprisingly succinct Special Relationship that segues nicely from its predecessor The Deal, which had centered on Blair's relationship with Gordon Brown.

As Relationship begins, Blair arrives in Washington D.C. to meet with Clinton's advisers regarding how to plan his rise to power before eventually settling into Number 10 Downing Street in the '90s, knowing full well that when he returns to the states, he'll be kicking off what the press called “the special relationship” between both progressive center-left wing men and their respective countries.

A complicated friendship that begins like hero worship as admittedly Blair seems seduced by the smooth-talking, powerfully in-control swagger of Bill Clinton (incredibly well-played by Dennis Quaid), Relationship chronicles their evolving dynamic as gradually the “student” manages to outmaneuver his “teacher” in the game of political chess.

Obviously it's impossible to investigate or appreciate the full extent of their collaboration and difference of opinion in a single, roughly ninety-minute movie. And at times Relationship feels a touch episodic as the men reach out to one another during highly urgent matters of global unrest from the IRA to Kosovo.

With curious behind-closed-doors fascination, we watch as Blair struggles with his moral conscience and judgments from colleagues and voters alike as he stands by Clinton during the President's near-impeachment that arose amidst the tumultuous events surrounding the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

However, from the sardonic use of an Oscar Wilde quote at the beginning that's well-complimented with choice news footage and ironic musical cues that comment on the difference between Clinton in the opening titles to Bush in the closing credits, Morgan's thesis becomes apparent early into the film. Similarly, Morgan handles the layers of their bond deftly, making the political posturing come alive.

Obviously, this is not an easy task by any means but Morgan is the right scribe for the job -- factoring in the emotional and moral components that go hand-in-hand with every critical event while managing to move us with behind-the-scenes conversations between Blair and Clinton and their intelligent wives, played by Helen McCroy and Hope Davis respectively.

Nonetheless, I still feel that for political junkies curious about “the real Tony Blair,” the most eye-opening entry in the trilogy was in the overlooked Deal that unfortunately didn't interest Americans as much as the Princess Di related theatrically released Queen and this Clinton retelling.

However, Richard Loncraine's stellar Relationship makes a worthy bookend to the series that Frears began as a work of high-caliber, intelligent HBO filmmaking that offers us an insider's point-of-view to events most of us only watched on the evening news. (Hmm, now if only we could get Morgan and Sheen back to work to dissect the ominously foreshadowed Bush years that Loncraine leaves us with at the Relationship's end.)

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.