Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were buddies before Monica Lewinsky and Slobodan Milosevic spoiled it all.
“The Special Relationship,” which debuts tomorrow on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time, is a convincing dramatization of the rocky partnership between the two problematic leaders and their ambitious wives.
Michael Sheen stars as Blair and looks so much like the former British prime minister that it’s hard to tell the difference when the movie switches from his portrayal to real news footage.
His big eyes, upturned nose and chirpy idealism explain why he was known as Bambi in his early days.
Dennis Quaid impersonates Clinton, without the former U.S. president’s bulbous nose, but full of the right amount of bombast, dissembling and political smarts.
The film is the third installment in screenwriter Peter Morgan’s Blair trilogy, following “The Deal” and “The Queen.” The writing is tight and the pace is just about perfect. If you’re a political junkie, or simply like watching politicians on the make, you’re in for a good couple of hours.
Clinton spotted a winner in Blair early on and took him under his wing.
“We think that the smart money is on you,” he tells Blair during a White House visit designed to enhance Blair’s electoral chances. After Blair’s victory, Clinton waxes profound about the possibility of advancing their “center-left” policies: “We’re on the right side of history,” he insists. “It’s a slam dunk.”
Then along comes Lewinsky.
Hope Davis, who resembles Hillary Clinton on a very good day, portrays a First Lady surprised and hurt by the intern revelations.
“How do you know this girl?” she asks Clinton, who’s squirming like a cornered possum.
“I talked to her a few times,” Clinton gamely bluffs. “You know me, I offered to help. Just trying to be nice.”
Enter Kenneth Starr, eagerly snooping around for stained dresses and forked tongues.
The film shows the pious Blairs being traumatized by the scandal, especially the sensitive Cherie (Helen McCrory), who shuffles their children away from the telly when a news broadcast mentions the president’s wayward member.
There are some very funny scenes, including a discussion during a flight to Washington about the nature of sin. One of Blair’s assistants says Clinton’s “rapid response” team has found a passage in Ecclesiastes suggesting the sexual act now known as “the Lewinsky” is not actually adulterous.
Cherie Blair doesn’t buy it, though when later asked by Tony if she would dump him if he got caught philandering, her response is pragmatic: “No, but I’d make your life hell.”
Milosevic, not Monica, drove the biggest wedge between Clinton and Blair. Blair was the enthusiastic hawk, pushing for ground troops to stop the Yugoslav leader’s “ethnic cleansing” in Kosovo. Since most of those soldiers would come from the U.S., not the U.K., Clinton favored dropping bombs.
In a Chicago speech, Blair, barking like a Churchillian bulldog, argued so passionately for invasion that members of the press dubbed him King Tony and Clinton began writing him off as a blowhard.
“What kind of king begs others to do his fighting for him?” the president sneers.
In the end, Clinton’s view prevailed and a NATO bombing campaign forced Milosevic to accept an international peace-keeping force.
The rift climaxed during a Clinton visit to Blair’s country estate, which coincided with the Supreme Court decision giving George W. Bush the presidency in the disputed 2000 election.
During a late-night refrigerator raid, Clinton castigates Blair and warns him about the new Bush/Cheney regime: “Be careful, these guys ... play rough.”
By then, Blair was a seasoned politician ready to cut his own deals with the devil of his choosing. It was a lesson he learned from the master.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Dave Shiflett is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)