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Clinton, Blair are the focus of HBO’s ‘The Special Relationship’

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At a pivotal time when fallen communist regimes were giving way to fledgling democracies, when European nations were emerging as a collective superpower, U.S. President Bill Clinton invited a rising political star to the White House.

Tony Blair, soon to become prime minister of England, was a like-minded, charismatic statesman eager to help shape a new world. He and Clinton would forge one of the dynamic alliances of the 20th century. Following Blair’s victory in 1997, the two men resolved to advance their liberal, progressive agenda across the international stage, a goal of Clinton’s now remembered as much for what might have been—and for the Monica Lewinsky scandal that ruined it — as for what was actually accomplished, as HBO’s new film, “The Special Relationship,” makes clear.

“They had such high hopes,” noted Dennis Quaid, who put on 30 pounds to portray Clinton in the drama, which premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. “It was a genuine friendship they had. Clinton was like the bigger brother. But after Lewinsky, everything changed.”

Clinton was forced to retrench. His presidency slipped into “a fight for survival at that point,” Quaid said, “and so Blair was basically on his own.”

The movie, starring Michael Sheen as Blair and written by Peter Morgan (“The Queen” and “Frost/Nixon”), explores the troubling and far-reaching ripple effects of the scandal, not only for Clinton but for Blair and his nation, as well. “Special relationship” was a phrase coined by Winston Churchill to refer to deep cultural and diplomatic bonds between the United States and Great Britain. However, it’s clear the term applies to Clinton and Blair, specifically, and to their wives, who were integral parts of the friendship, and even, as a double entendre, to Clinton and Lewinsky, the 23-year-old White House intern at the center of the furor.

Their dalliance was “probably the most influential piece of infidelity in my lifetime, and maybe in the century,” said 63-year-old director Richard Loncraine, but he cautions that filmmakers were not out to re-tell the sordid episode. Lewinsky’s presence on screen amounts to only a photograph and a few brief film clips, Loncraine pointed out. The drama unfolds, instead, from Clinton’s fall from grace, and how Blair, maturing as a leader, grapples with his disillusionment and his ambition to press the international agenda that he and Clinton had set for themselves.

Crafted largely from memoirs, news footage and Morgan’s own interviews with aides and associates over seven years, the film shows the two leaders both in the spotlight and during unguarded moments in their kitchens, cars and bedrooms. Blair scavenges in the laundry for a favorite shirt. Clinton is admonished by Hillary for snacking in bed. All the while, global pressures test a strained friendship.

During a transatlantic flight, Blair prepares to make a public show of support for the president while debating with his aides about whether he should instead back away. An advisor notes that Clinton’s “rapid response team” has uncovered a biblical verse suggesting that oral sex is not adultery. It is one of the subtle humorous notes in a film where Blair is quoted as saying, “On a theory, you can take any word in the English language that excites you, like ‘sex’ or ‘food’ or ‘music’ or ‘money,’ and completely remove any pleasure it arouses simply by adding the prefix ‘Euro-.’ ”

“What I’ve always enjoyed about the character is the interplay between the public and the private man — the politician and the family man and husband,” said Sheen, who played Blair in two previous films, “The Deal” and “The Queen,” which form a trilogy with this new production. Sheen, who also portrayed TV talk-show host David Frost in “Frost/Nixon,” talked ardently about politics during a sit-down interview, voicing a fascination with the enigma that is Tony Blair.

“He was loved and then absolutely reviled by the end,” Sheen said. “He’d changed and he’d matured and learned stuff, but essentially he was the same man. You could plot that development. That was what mostly drew me to doing this particular story, to explore that journey.”

Filmmakers believe the journey explains the deeper mystery of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. In writing the script, Morgan said, “I was concerned with … answering the question, ‘How did Tony Blair go from being the best friend of Bill Clinton to the best friend of George Bush?’ I don’t think anybody else could have achieved that.” And yet, Morgan said, “Tony Blair wasn’t a poodle being led into Iraq by Bush.”

Written and directed by Brits, and shot largely in London, the movie offers a decidedly British perspective, though the real goal was to humanize the currents of high-level politics, filmmakers say. Hillary Clinton, played by Hope Davis, and Cherie Blair, played by British actress Helen McCrory, were brilliant attorneys who became friends while serving as intimate advisors to their husbands.

“They were at dinners together, conversing about their kids and what to do with Iraq,” Davis said. “It was a very complex relationship.”

McCrory, who said Blair’s wife was vilified in her homeland after the publication of her memoir, described British attitudes toward politicians as especially cynical.

“We laugh at them for the most part,” she said, “and when we don’t we rip them apart.”

HBO took on the project mainly because it was a strong, entertaining story, never mind the war and global politics, said Len Amato, president of HBO Films. “It’s not supposed to be homework,” he said. “We’re looking for good stories, relevant stories, stories about how we are — and if, in the bargain, we touch a nerve on topical issues and spur people to look deeper into those things, that’s great. That’s what a good film does.”

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