Last week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted the one and only US theatrical screening of Stephen Frears’ 2003 TV movie THE DEAL – a gripping political drama about the stormy relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. The film tracks the pair’s relationship starting in the 1980’s when the two young, energetic, and ambitious politicians worked together as Members of Parliament in the opposition until 1994, when they allegedly brokered a power sharing deal at Islington’s Granita Restaurant; where Brown agreed to step aside and allowed Blair to run for Prime Minister. In return Brown received control over all domestic issues, and Blair supposedly agreed to resign at a predetermined time and make way for Brown to take over as Prime Minister. This pact allowed for the modernization of the Labor party, a 1997 landslide victory, and three consecutive terms in power.
Like the 2006 Academy Award winning THE QUEEN, THE DEAL is written by Peter Morgan, Tony Blair is played by Michael Sheen, and both films are directed by Stephen Frears. However, THE DEAL depicts a different side of Blair’s character. In THE QUEEN we see an energetic and charismatic Blair that seems truly concerned about the Queen and her reputation. In THE DEAL Blair is just as intense, yet we also meet an aggressive, calculating strategist who knows exactly when to play his cards. In THE QUEEN it is easy to root for him, as we want him to win over Queen Elizabeth, but it is harder to sympathize with him in THE DEAL. Even though history tells us that it was the right decision to have him lead the Labor party into the 1997 elections, the way he went about securing his place is depicted as rather cunning and cruel. After the sudden death of Labor leader John Smith in 1994, Blair apparently did not take a moment to mourn the loss, but immediately started working on lobbying for his new position. He quickly out-outmaneuvered Gordon Brown who actually took the time to paid tribute to Smith before focusing on the question of succession.
Michael Sheen completely succeeds in playing the outgoing, articulate, and media friendly Blair, as does David Morrisey as the recluse, moody Brown who always seems uncomfortable in his own skin.
Frears offers a poignant psychological portrait of two brilliant minds – who start off as political allies and end up personal enemies. The tension between Blair and Brown is palpable and the drama completely captivates the viewer as the events unfold. Thankfully, one does not need to know everything about domestic British politics to follow the course of events.
Both THE QUEEN and THE DEAL use extensive original news footage to support the story and Frears guides us seamlessly from fact to fiction and back again. During the q&a session after the screening, lead by Film Comment’s editor Gavin Smith, Frears acknowledged British documentary filmmaker and producer Adam Curtis who worked with him on selecting and assembling relevant archival footage for both THE DEAL as well as THE QUEEN.
Both films contain numerous off-the record conversations, such as between Blair and Brown in THE DEAL or between the Queen and Blair in THE QUEEN. With no official transcript or third parties to refer to, these talks are largely conceived by writer Peter Morgan. And so, Frears opens THE DEAL with a quote from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID stating: MOST OF WHAT FOLLOWS IS TRUE.
When asked about factual accuracy during the q&a, Frears responded that for both his films, the feedback has been: “You got everything wrong – but you got it right”.
He then offered the following example: when Tony Blair was asked whether he was nervous when he met the Queen for the first time, he responded “look at the Queen- they got it right”
Frears furthermore added that he is constantly learning new pieces of information about both films. Even though neither Blair nor Brown ever publicly acknowledge the deal making meeting at the Granita Restaurant, Blair’s wife Cherie recently published her autobiography in which she claims that the pact was not made at Granita’s but at a neighbors house.
THE DEAL received a Bafta TV award for Best Single Drama in 2004, was aired on HBO last winter, and the Weinstein Company’s new DVD outlet (MIRIAM COLLECITON) just released the DVD in the US.
According to Variety, Peter Morgan is currently working on a new script about Tony Blair and his relationship with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. It will be interesting to see which of Blair’s personality traits Morgan will examine this time. This third installment will complete a psychological triptych of a political figure that impacted and shaped British and world politics for over a decade.