Saturday, January 22, 2011

One A Week Reviews #3: The Special Relationship

HBO TV movies are usually excellent productions, and this isn't an exception. Practically a sequel to The Queen, and reviewed for!
The Special Relationship

Official Synopsis:
From the Oscar-nominated writer of Frost/Nixon and The Queen comes a powerful new look at the human side of iconic world leaders. Tony Blair (Michael Sheen), the eager young statesman, and Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid), the seasoned and charismatic president, together dream of remaking the world in a progressive fashion. Their wives, Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair (Hope Davis and Helen McCrory), complete a unique foursome connected by shared ideologies and personal affection. When world events and personal watersheds shake the very foundation of their relationship, the two men must come to terms with the ephemeral nature of power and, oftentimes, friendship.

Our Take:
The Special Relationship opens with the Oscar Wilde quote "True Friends Stab You in the Front" and a montage of film of meetings of American Presidents and British Prime Ministers. The title refers to what that dynamic between the two roles has always been called, and the quote fits the story of the friendship. We start with Clinton in office and Blair about to be. Starting with this power difference and it's changes helps the audience come in to relate to idea of the actual men who hold two of the most powerful positions on earth. Much like in The Queen, the film revels in the normal domestic chaos the Blairs are seemingly known for.

It's hard for a film to strike the balance between telling a story and capturing subjects who are still alive and vibrant in living memory. We also forget sometimes that public figures are, in fact, "people" with all the foibles that implies. Structuring a look at recent history as a series of dinners and conversations in kitchens and bathrooms is a more delicate balance still. The Special Relationship is a breezy walk through the 1990s distilled as the arc of a friendship between two couples rather than a couple of world leaders.

After The Deal and The Queen, this is Michael Sheen's third go-round playing Tony Blair. He captures the "impression" one has of Blair for an American who's seen him on television. Dennis Quaid's Clinton doesn't hold up as well when compared to one's memory of the real thing, though he brings a brusqueness that Clinton probably possesses in private. It's hard to watch without comparing him to years of more accurate passes made on Saturday Night Live. I'm amused and hopeful that a British audience has the reverse problem.

Helen McCrory also played Cherie Blair in The Queen. Both she and Hope Davis both sell intelligence. Davis nails the "concept" better than Quaid does, along with the mannerisms. She's especially good in the sequences touching on the "Lewinsky scandal." (When one sees the public figures surviving the situation one starts to wonder how strong Monica Lewinsky must have been to have survived being thrown to the world's wolves at all.) All four performers work on capturing an intimate dynamic of two couples having light laughs as opposed to their weight as power brokers. The film's sympathies seem to lie more with the Blairs, and one walks away thinking the wives are the real strategists in these couples.

In the end, The Special Relationship is a TV movie. Fast paced to hit the highlights, nothing looks expensive, or is focused on long enough to pick apart. An HBO production, it has that deluxe quality and still gives the impression of lives lived on a grand scale. It's fascinating for an audience to see two world leaders portrayed as very normal, familiar people -especially in terms of laundry- though you never really get an idea of what makes these men tick.

Special Features:
The Special Relationship is presented widescreen in English 5.1 and Spanish 2.0 Digital sound. Subtitles in English, Spanish, and French are available. There's also a five minute making-of documentary on the disc.

Michael Sheen and Helen McCrory as the Blairs are getting to be as comforting and familiar a team up as Tracy and Hepburn or Powell and Loy. The actors go for the "idea" of the people rather than straight up impersonation, and all have moments that shine. The Special Relationship is a political version of a comforting "cozy murder mystery" that looks at world leaders like they were "couple friends" who dine and vacation together. A familiar TV movie, but worth watching for anyone who remembers the political landscape of the 1990s.

Overall Picture:
Movie: B-
Extras: B-

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