With the airing of “The Special Relationship” May 29 on HBO, Tony Blair assumes his place among a select group of English leaders. Like King Henry VI before him, Blair is now the subject of a dramatic trilogy. Why screenwriter Peter Morgan chose to make three films about Blair (and only one about Richard Nixon) is a question worth pondering. Surely Blair, an articulate, conscientious family man, does not warrant the kind of scrutiny reserved for bloody-minded monarchs?
Or does he? Though Tony Blair may still be popular in the United States, “The Special Relationship” is evidence that he is far from beloved in Britain. The film’s ostensible subject is the fraught relationship between Blair and President Bill Clinton at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and later, during NATO’s engagement in Kosovo. Yet what Morgan is really interested in is why Blair, a promising politician, ended his tenure as prime minister as a strong backer of George W. Bush’s ruinous war in Iraq. “Let no one ever doubt again the moral justification of invading another country for humanitarian ends,” Blair thunders in the wake of Slobodan Milosevic’s decision to withdraw his troops from Kosovo. Sound familiar?
Morgan’s Blair trilogy began with “The Deal" (2003), which chronicled the highly complicated relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown, and continued with "The Queen” (2006), the acclaimed film that nabbed Helen Mirren an Oscar for her turn as Elizabeth II. The true subject of each film, however, is Blair, who is portrayed as a gifted if somewhat slippery politician with no small amount of ambition. At the beginning of “The Special Relationship” we see Blair (Michael Sheen, reprising his signature role) traveling to Washington, D.C. in 1993 to study at the feet of victorious Clintonites. Like Clinton, Blair hoped to lead his party to victory by tacking to the political center, and he returned home to London with a briefcase full of new ideas.
Blair also returned home with a new suit and tie, inspired by the wardrobe of the new president from Arkansas, played here with impressive range by a snow-cropped Dennis Quaid. Later, when Blair learns that he is to meet privately with Bill Clinton during a pre-election trip to Washington, he shines like a smitten schoolboy. Indeed, for much of the film Blair comes across as star struck by his American counterpart, and even comes to Clinton’s public defense as the Lewinsky affair unfolds. Though as a candidate Blair pledged to strengthen ties with Europe, he is far more interested in politics west of London. At one point he even hangs up on President Jacques Chirac of France to take a call from Clinton, a too obvious dramatization of where his sympathies lay.
Of course, as the film’s title suggests, Britain and the United States have enjoyed a unique relationship ever since FDR and Churchill forged a partnership out of the ashes of World War II. (The term "special relationship" was coined by Churchill.) And in the early years of Blair’s tenure, it was difficult to deny the special chemistry he enjoyed with Clinton. Baby boomers both, Clinton and Blair transformed their parties after years of political exile. They both hoped for a new era of progressive government, in which both the radical left and right would be sidelined for decades, if not permanently. In one conversation, Clinton confidently predicts to Blair that his Democratic regime would extend for another four years when Al Gore is elected president. Needless to say, this was before anyone had ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky.
When that scandal breaks, the film pivots to consider the strained dynamics of America’s most famous marriage. Hillary Clinton (a spot-on Hope Davis) handles the revelations with surprising aplomb, telling Bill that she has to process the pain in her own way, and in her own time. Quaid, too, is quite convincing as a man of great appetites who denies his transgression until he has no other choice but to confess. Interestingly, the film suggests Clinton became a better man because of his fall from grace. Blair, on the other hand, receives no such absolution.
The film concludes with what may have been Blair’s triumph as prime minister. In a public rebuke to Clinton, who refused to send troops into Kosovo despite the failures of air attacks, Blair delivered a speech in Chicago called on the international community to end the continuing atrocities. The next day, the America media hailed “King Tony” for his eloquence and moral strength, a sharp contrast to the disgraced Clinton.
The shadow of Iraq, however, is never far away. In speech after speech arguing for action in Kosovo, Blair rails against tyrants, and even says to Clinton that is their “Christian duty” to stop Milosevic. The allusions to Saddam Hussein may strike some as heavy handed, but Morgan makes a compelling historical case that the seeds of the Iraqi invasion were sown in Yugoslavia.
Ultimately, Peter Morgan’s principal concern is whether a “special relationship” is in Britain’s best interests. Under Blair the British Foreign Office was eager to play up the transatlantic partnership, but Washington was not always willing to play along. On his first visit to London after Blair’s 1997 victory, Clinton implies that the United States does not in fact have a special relationship with the U.K.—that its relations with Israel, among others, is actually stronger. Later, as the two men discuss George W. Bush’s victory, Clinton presses Blair on his plans for working with the Republican president. “Are you going to hug him close and go for glory?” he asks, “or do the right thing and head for home?”
The question stands as both a challenge and a reprimand. Clinton may not know the answer, but the audience does, and we are left with the image of the men themselves, Bush and Blair, trading quips at a press conference at Camp David. The invasion of Baghdad was just two years away.