The Special Relationship
Following his previous dramas, The Deal and The Queen, the prolific screenwriter Peter Morgan delivers the last instalment in his trilogy, The Special Relationship, which deals with Tony Blair’s foreign politics and particularly his relationship with America.
The film provides an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the unique and sometimes turbulent political alliance and personal friendship between the newly-installed British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the seasoned and charismatic American President, Bill Clinton.
Tony Blair is played yet again by Michael Sheen, who has previously portrayed him in the “The Deal” and “The Queen”. The 41 years-old Welsh actor, who bears a striking physical resemblance to Tony Blair, doesn’t really know the actual Tony Blair, and he based his impressions and perception of him through TV footage, books and press interviews.
“I met him last year here in LA at a dinner,” he giggles. “I’d already played him twice and I felt it’d be good to get a sniff of him now and see what he’s actually like in a room. I think it doesn’t matter how much you watch someone on screen or read about them until you’re actually in a room with the person you don’t really get a sense of them as a three-dimensional person, so it was fascinating to watch him.”
When Blair was asked for his opinion of Sheen’s portrayal of him, he denied that he ever saw The Deal or The Queen, though he had a very intimate understanding of the films. Nonetheless, Sheen was charmed by him. “That’s one of his tools, his weapons, is to get you to like him, to charm you. I could see that on one hand he wanted me to like him but on the other hand he was also very wary of me. He asked me about my new film and then said ‘I hope you’re not going to make it look like Bill had all the fun’,” Sheen laughs.
Besides Tony Blair, Sheen has played other real characters in the past such as the celebrity journalist David Frost in “Nixon/Frost” and the football manager, Brian Claugh, in “The Damned United”. Interestingly, he doesn’t find Tony Blair to be the most compelling character he has ever played. “He is fairly a vacuous, empty character,” he stresses.
But the more Sheen learned about Blair, the more he admired him for taking on such a job with a huge responsibility, knowing that he is not going to please everyone whatever decision he makes. “In acting scenes and thinking about scenes in all the three films where the choice that this man makes affects the lives of millions of people, and I know I wouldn’t want to have to be in that position because, you know, you’re not going to make the right call all the time.” Sheen says.
In the film, Blair comes across as self-serving, manipulative, messianic and control freak, but Sheen thinks he was more ambiguous than he seems. “I think he was very motivated by a desire to serve but I think his own personal ambition was huge as well. He’s always at the right place at the right time and he would say that the best thing for his country or his party is for him to be in the front. It worked for a while and then started to split a little.”
“So that’s what I am always interested me in a character, how self-serving is he and how much is he trying to do the right thing?”
Sheen is reluctant to give an answer to this question. “It’s there in the film,” he insists. “It’s for you to make your own judgement.”
Regardless of Blair’s true motives, it is evident that he was eager to be a mover and a shaker on an international level, and he believed that his relationship with America and its president, Clinton, would help him to achieve that.
Tony Blair ingratiates himself to Bill Clinton and eventually gains his friendship and trust. The two center-left politicians, driven by personal ambitions, embark on a mission to make the world a better place for all. Their first collaboration yielded a resolution to the intractable conflict in Northern Ireland, but the bond between the two men sunders when they clash over the festering crisis in Kosovo.
Unlike Tony Blair, who harbours conservative ideologies beneath the faÃ§ade of his left-centralist persona and is driven by Christian beliefs, Bill Clinton is a pragmatic politician and a true liberal. He rejects Blair’s doctrine of regime change in sovereign states for humanitarian purposes and advocates a cautious approach instead. Unimpressed, Tony Blair commits the ultimate betrayal against his democratic friend and jumps in bed with the newly elected conservative president, George Bush.
Bill Clinton is portrayed by the American actor, Dennis Quaid, the star of the Bosnian’s war thriller “Savior”, Oliver Stone’s epic football drama “Any Given Sunday” and the award winning drama “Far From Heaven.”
Unlike Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid doesn’t bear any physical or demeanour resemblance to Bill Clinton, and it was his first time playing the former president. In fact, he was shocked when he was offered the part. “I almost turned it down,” he laughs. “I just didn’t see myself playing the role who’s really struck fear in my heart to think about doing it. It was such a daunting task. But fear is a great motivator as well so I decided to take it on.”
Gaining 35 pounds and donning silver hair helped Quaid presenting a convincing look of Bill Clinton. And to get into Clinton’s psyche, he watched miles of footage on Clinton and read his thick biography, which covers every day of his presidency. But what really gave him the edge and a deeper understanding of Clinton was spending a weekend with him in the white house in the late-90’s when he was a president.
“I went there for a State Dinner for the King of Spain and he knew that I played golf so he asked me to stay over. It was a slow news weekend and Hillary was out of town and it was just he and I in the White House and it was, you know, one of the singular experiences of my life really. We got on the back of the Presidential limo and we took off to play golf. We got a couple of Subway sandwiches in the back,” He giggles.
This experience and subsequent encounters with Clinton left a powerful positive impression on Quaid. “He naturally has a sunny disposition in general. He’s a very optimistic person and he has, I think, this desire to be liked and I think that’s what drives him in politics and in life as well. It’s part of his charm. He is the smartest man I ever met,” Quaid says.
Indeed, in spite of his seemingly arrogant and sometime condescending attitude towards Blair and his cheating on Hillary with Monica Lewinsky and then lying about it, Bill Clinton is mostly presented in a positive light in the movie. Nonetheless, Quaid is nervous about Clinton seeing it. And he didn’t call him when he got the part to play him.
“I don’t know if he will see it and I don’t expect him to comment on it, but I think in the end and one of the reasons that I wound up actually taking it is because it does portray him in a very human way,” he concluded.