Tired of 1980s nostalgia? Here comes The Special Relationship with 1990s nostalgia. The HBO TV movie, premiering on May 29 and written by Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), gets its title from the relationship between Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, who played this part for Morgan in two other films) and Bill Clinton (Dennis Quaid). Though it gets a publicity boost from the U.K.’s electoral shakeup, Morgan’s script stops in the year 2000, requiring director Richard Loncraine to create a Clinton-era period piece. “The ’90s have got less personality than, say, the ’60s,” Loncraine sighed to Maclean’s, regretting a lack of distinction in “the hair, the clothes, the cars.” But the film suggests one thing the ’90s had in common with the ’60s: they had infinite hope and promise, and it all went to hell.
Though the movie jumps in a choppy way from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the Kosovo war, its overriding theme is a lament for lost liberal opportunities. It begins with Blair studying Clinton’s example to learn how a centre-left party can return to power; in another scene, Clinton talks about the chance to make “progressive politics the default setting in Western democracies.” Then comes Lewinsky, hurting Al Gore’s election chances and making Blair less willing to learn from Clinton. Loncraine says the film is supposed to show how “tiny things in history can have an exponential effect on the world,” because if not for the unseen Monica, “we would have had Gore, and we wouldn’t have gotten into Iraq. I wasn’t aware how influential that was.” Liberals can watch this movie and kick themselves over what might have been.
That disappointment connects this film to Morgan and Sheen’s first Blair film, The Deal (where Blair beats hapless Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership). His Blair is a man who wasn’t what he seemed; early in the film, he makes a compelling speech and then mutters that it was “so good I almost believed it myself.” But that movie was a more serious look at the ’90s; this one is almost celebratory, because it has a hero, and his nickname is “Bubba.” Though Loncraine has never met Morgan, he gets the feeling Morgan’s “love for Blair would seem less than his love for Clinton,” and that’s borne out by a scene where Clinton tells off Blair for not being a true “centre-left progressive,” and a positive portrayal of what the director calls Clinton’s “sense of humour and charisma.” Even his marriage is portrayed as a love story between equals, openly envied by Cherie Blair.
This Clinton-love might have seemed passé last year, when the U.S. presidency had been assumed by the man who beat Hillary in the primaries. But today, liberals of America and Britain are starved for leadership. With the U.S. disillusioned with Democrats, Gordon Brown forced out of power, and progressives unable to get a foothold in Canada, Clinton may be ripe for idealized treatment. “I know Clinton got it wrong in many ways, but I see that his moral judgment is something I relate to more than to Blair,” Loncraine says.
Morgan’s writing isn’t just a wistful look back. He’s saying the ’90s were a darker time than we think; he told the Daily Express that he wanted to examine the era because “everything that happened pre-9/11 is now Jurassic history and we’ve completely forgotten it.” The script hits us over the head about Blair’s obsession with “invading another country for humanitarian reasons,” and foreshadows Bush-era catchphrases when Clinton uses the term “slam dunk.” “This is a film about how Tony Blair got us into Iraq,” Loncraine says, and Clinton even predicts what will happen with Bush and Cheney, like Cassandra with a southern accent and a bad haircut.
If that wasn’t enough to make Clinton lovable, it helps that Quaid—who has said that he “went to McDonald’s every day” to bulk up to Clinton weight—has hammy fun with the character, while Sheen, a more familiar quantity as Blair, subordinates himself to Quaid’s goofiness. So, though Loncraine insists “there’s not much about the ’90s I particularly love,” the subliminal message is that back then, the leader of the world was a Hollywood movie star who was right about everything. Also, the cellphones were really, really big.