The Special Relationship -- TV Review

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As Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair will be remembered for his steadfast relationship with President George W. Bush, which, in many ways, seems like a political anomaly. Blair, after all, was a sophisticated and serious student of world events with a center-left political orientation. Bush, on the other hand, struggled to string words together and took most of his guidance from his intuition or from the political right.

Bush plays almost no part in HBO's "The Special Relationship," the third in writer Peter Morgan's superb trilogy on Blair's political career. Instead, the film focuses on Blair's relationship with President Clinton (expertly played by Dennis Quaid) from 1996-2000. But in so doing, it also explains how and why the prime minister developed an even greater rapport with Clinton's successor.

Morgan sees Blair, again smartly portrayed by Michael Sheen, as a basically intelligent, responsible and decent executive with an enormous facility for absorbing and applying lessons of political strategy. Blair saw parallels between himself and Clinton, who reversed the declining fortunes of the Democratic Party with charisma and a message crafted to resonate with voters.

Clinton boosted Blair's candidacy by publicly hosting him at the White House before the U.K. elections. Blair returned the favor, standing by Clinton as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded.

The two leaders were at loggerheads, though, about what NATO should do in the former Yugoslavia, where accounts of slaughter and brutality were almost daily occurrences. Clinton did not want to escalate beyond bombing missions. Blair pressed for ground troops.

How Blair prevailed and what he took from the experience, though arguably at the heart of Morgan's screenplay, are but a few of the insights the film offers. Morgan also lifts the veil on the impact of the Lewinsky affair on the two leaders as well as its effect on their wives, Cherie Blair (Helen McCrory) and Hillary Clinton (Hope Davis), who, by then, had developed a friendship of their own.

Any attempt to dramatize recent history is fraught with peril. Historians have not yet developed a consensus on the impact of key events. Portrayals of familiar figures must capture their essence without a slavish devotion to their every mannerism.

Director Richard Loncraine, who helmed "The Gathering Storm," HBO's stirring film on Winston Churchill in the years immediately preceding World War II, avoided nearly all pitfalls. With its well-chosen cast and high production values, "Relationship" is an especially thoughtful, revealing and honest account of power and politics.

Airdate: 9-10:30 p.m. Saturday, May 29 (HBO)
Production: A Rainmark Films production and a Kennedy/Marshall production in association with BBC Films
Cast: Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis, Helen McCrory, Mark Bazeley, Adam Godley, Marc Rioufol, Matthew Marsh
Executive producers: Andrew Harries, Christine Langan, Peter Morgan, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall
Producer: Ann Wingate
Produced by: Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield
Director: Richard Loncraine
Writer: Peter Morgan
Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Editor: Melanie Oliver
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Set decorator: Tatiana MacDonald
Casting: Nina Gold
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