When John Travolta portrayed the Bill Clinton character in "Primary Colors" (left, with Emma Thompson as the Hillary Clinton character), he seemed to be playing above his intellect. He got the fellow-feeling and shrewdness of the man but not his capacious intelligence.
When Dennis Quaid plays him in the erratically brilliant HBO movie, "The Special Relationship," the performance fails to rise beyond the character as written -- he takes on the shape of a hammock, in more ways than one. Quaid's Clinton starts out strong, as a deceptively down-home visionary, plotting out a new liberal scenario for post-Cold World War politics. He ends strong, too, as a wounded political warrior cautioning Tony Blair about allying himself too closely to the Bush administration. But in between, he bulges out. Writer Peter Morgan and director Richard Loncraine stay on the surface just when we need to get inside Clinton's personality -- during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and its never-ending aftermath. Quaid reverts to nothing more than a virtuoso impersonation of the public dissembler. The script reduces him to a foil for Blair. By the end, you don't know which treatment he could benefit from more: sex-addiction therapy or Over-Eaters Anonymous. His nervous eating becomes, on the part of the filmmakers, an obnoxious editorial comment and a reductive comic tic. (For a more complex and positive view of the Blair-Clinton relationship, read former Labour Party communications chief Alastair Campbell's "The Blair Years.")
It may be that Clinton is too wily, elusive and tragicomic a character to be contained in conventional political movies. Jeff Bridges came the closest to capturing him as the president in Rod Lurie's melodrama "The Contender." He may have been named Jackson Evans but he was Clinton as we wanted him to be: down-to-earth and brilliant, but also principled and a shrewd tactician -- the life of the White House, and the life of the movie.
What do you think of the several faces of Clinton we've seen on film so far? What president on screen has ever convinced you he could be a world leader? Henry Fonda in "Fail-Safe," maybe?