May 31, 2010

Bill and Tony: the wrong special relationship

The Special Relationship is Peter Morgan's first misfire, I think: a perfectly acceptable 90 minutes of television but nothing more, with none of the inspired guesswork that illuminated his scripts for The Queen and, to a lesser degree, Frost-Nixon. Hope Davis's Hillary Clinton was the highlight, thanks not to any great feat of vocal mimicry but to a series of beautifully skipped beats, in which she simply pauses, or looks off-stage and you see the Clinton super-computer whirr into action. She blinks bad information away. Dennis Quaid, as Bill, is buried under too much make-up and too concentrated on the voice; some crucial mercury was missing, along with his striking gift for intimacy, but then that may well have been Morgan's script, which too often attempted to pass off rampant editorialising and exposition as inside dish from the corridors of power. I lost count of the number of times Bill helpfully summarised Tony's motives for us. What The Special Relationship lacked, in fact, was any feel for the relationship at its centre. Bill was commanding; Tony unctuous; the two traded favors, and that was that. The random events of a single term in office (Ireland, Lewinsky, Kosovo) didn't add up to the shapeliness of good drama. Morgan built towards Blair's Chicago speech about Kosovo as an upstart usurpation, the student passing the master, but the angle smacked too much of a Wall Street Journal editorial, rather than an actual flesh-and-blood interaction — a Peggy Noonan column come to life, but lacking a real pulse. Morgan is getting a little bored of Blair, I think; or rather, the closer he gets to the sundering of public sympathy over Iraq the more the urge to lecture takes over. Sheen's public speaking voice for Blair is uncanny — the headmasterly pauses, the staccato phrasing — but in private he's too gushy, the new boy tripping over his laundry. I wanted more cunning, more cool inteligence. As Bush limbered up in the sidelines, joking about toothpaste, you couldn't help but think Morgan had zeroed in on the wrong relationship, too: Bill-Tony was at best a romance twinned with a comedy of errors. The true tragedy was yet to come. Here's an idea for a drama, in fact: a politician trained like a gun-dog on the task of being liked by as wide a number of people as is humanly possible, finds himself despised by the people who elected him to office and has to go slightly mad to accommodate that fact.

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