The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Is Bill Clinton ready for his Hollywood close-up?

July 23, 2008 | 10:54 am

Morgan_2 If Bill Clinton knew who Peter Morgan has been talking to lately, he'd probably be tossing and turning under the sheets all night. Best known as the screenwriter of the Oscar-nominated "The Queen," Morgan has quietly become Britain's best fictionalizer of real-life political and cultural events. The Ron Howard-directed adaptation of Morgan's hit play, "Frost/Nixon," is due out this December. Morgan has also finished an adaptation of John le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" for Working Title. He's in such demand these days that during a quick visit to Los Angeles last week, he had to squeeze our interview in between a lunch with an A-list director, coffee with a top producer and a lengthy phone chat with Barbra Streisand. ("Sorry,'' he said, by way of apology, "but she's quite, well, garrulous.")

For my money, Morgan did his best work on a little-seen British drama, "The Deal," which paints an acerbic portrait of Tony Blair's sly, opportunistic rise to power, with Blair played by Michael Sheen, who is something of Morgan's alter ego, having also played the former prime minister in "The Queen" and David Frost in "Frost/Nixon." Released in Britain in 2003 and directed by "The Queen's" Stephen Frears, "The Deal" never had a theatrical release in the U.S. But you can see it tonight (Wednesday, July 23) at 7:30 on a double bill with "The Queen" at the Egyptian Theatre as part of an ongoing American Cinematheque series. The film arrives on DVD here next Tuesday. With David Morrissey as Gordon Brown, Blair's Labor Party ally-turned-rival (and now British prime minister), the film is a fascinating meditation on today's media-driven politics, showing not only how a friendship is torn apart by political ambition, but how Brown's steely intellect was no match for Blair's easy warmth and seductive charm.

By now you're probably wondering ... what does Bill Clinton have to do with all this? Ah. As it turns out, Morgan wrote "The Deal" and "The Queen" as the first two parts of a political film trilogy. Now he's working on the final installment. When we spoke on the phone the other day, he'd just been in Washington, D.C., talking to political insiders, with a trip to Little Rock, Ark., next on the horizon. So guess who'll have a starring role in the next film?

Morgan envisions the script, currently titled "The Special Relationship," as an intimate portrait of Blair's relationship with Clinton, circa 1997-2000. "In my mind, when I heard that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were alone in each other's company when Al Gore conceded the 2000 election, I thought to myself, 'Hmmm, there's a story there, certainly about Britain's relationship with America.' Everyone in the world ultimately has to be involved in a special relationship with America--the country simply has so much influence on world affairs--so this seemed like an especially dramatic place to start."

Morgan wasn't about to reveal any of his best sources. But he acknowledged that while in Washington, he spent much of his time interviewing members of the Clinton administration, doing what he calls "fact checking and deep research." All that work pays off. "The Deal" is a political junkie's delight, crammed with juicy, intimate scenes from the film's political figures' lives. Some are imagined, some are based on first-person accounts, others are dead-on reproductions of party speeches and news conferences. It's hard to remember a film that did a better job of capturing the back-room strategizing and shrewd media gamesmanship of a politician's rise to power. "Caution may well be a good political skill," Morgan says. "But hesitancy is not. And Blair certainly was never hesitant. He was decisive, full of conviction and quite ruthless. That's certainly true of Clinton as well. You need to be tough to be a politician."

Getprev_2 For anyone who recalls Morgan's generally sympathetic portrayal of Blair in "The Queen," "The Deal" is quite a revelation, painting a much more cynical portrait of Blair as the ultimate opportunist, brimming with often unbridled ambition. When the film opened in London, to great reviews, the Blair camp was not pleased. "His people felt I'd written the story from Brown's point of view. The truth of the matter is that the piece is very even-handed, but you do feel it's Brown's story, because he's the one who loses, so you feel more for him. It's a strange rule of cinema that you are drawn to people for their shortcomings and failings, not necessarily because you like them."

Some of the darkness of the portrayal of Blair may have come from Sheen, who was starring in a revival of Albert Camus' 1938 play "Caligula" at the time. Sheen would do the play at night and shoot the film during the day. It's hard to imagine anyone else playing Blair--Morgan is hopeful that both Sheen and Frears will return to work on the new film.

He insists that he doesn't have any casting ideas for Bill Clinton, saying that's always a director's prerogative. But Morgan promises that the gauzy portrayal of Blair in "The Queen" will not be repeated, intimating that Clinton, especially the Clinton in the last years of his presidency, won't get off easily either. "You have to remember," he told me, " 'The Queen' was set in that honeymoon period when Blair had just taken over the country and didn't have to be especially devious."

He laughs. "I can assure you there's plenty of deviousness in the new film." 

Here's a year-old clip of Morgan, on a British chat show, first articulating how he might approach telling the story of Blair and Clinton in a film:

Photo of Peter Morgan by Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times; photo of Michael Sheen and Helen Mirren in "The Queen" from Miramax Films