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The Deal (2003)

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Sunday, Jul 27, 2008

While it’s not novel to say so, politics remains a truly unique animal. While typically set up to give all sides a voice in how the population is structured and led, its antiquated ideal no longer legitimately serving the “one man, one vote” fantasy. Instead, running for office has become a quasi-fame whore obstacle course, the best candidate often losing to the one capable of avoiding the pitfalls predicated by numerous conflicting obligations and needs. In the end, what we get is a kind of communal compromise, a contract if you will between the voter and the sharp-dressed defenders. It’s this kind of wheeling and concealing that’s at the core of the excellent made for TV movie The Deal. The locale may be different, but the political games definitely remain the same.


With their party’s defeat in 1992, British Labour leader Neil Kinnock resigns in disgrace. Replaced by longtime political animal John Smith, the opposition is desperate to end more than a decade of Margaret Thatcher’s conservative reign. Looking to the new blood within the organization, the names of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair emerge. The former is a longstanding member, a staunchly Scottish firebrand in his legislative motives. The latter is more of a personality, easy on camera and clearly in tune with the pre-millennial climate in the country. Naturally, the matter of succession is addressed, with Brown believing he has a ‘deal’ with Blair about who will next represent Labour. But when an unexpected tragedy occurs, both men will be tested, and their agreement seen cast away by the media, and many within their own union.


cover art

The Deal

(Granada Television; US DVD: 29 Jul 2008)

When you think about it, The Deal is really nothing more than a serious of closed door confronts all leading up to the inevitable election of Tony Blair as Britain’s Prime Minister. The scope is further limited in that writer Peter Morgan and director Stephen Frears (also responsible for The Queen) have chosen to focus solely on the infighting between then Labour Party cohorts Blair and Brown. Viewed as diametrically opposed in personal approach, as well as political savvy, we’re supposed to choose sides and see who wins (even though the facts give that element away). So it’s the process, and the personalities involved, that drive The Deal‘s initial drama. But thanks to the performances of actors Michael Sheen and David Morrissey, we gain the kind of insights we couldn’t glean from a newspaper or a Parliamentary transcript.


Morgan acknowledges in the commentary that accompanies this new DVD version of the film (from The Weinstein Company and their high end Miriam Collection label) that while meticulous research was done on this backroom battle between two rising UK heavyweights, some creative license was used to realize his aims. Frankly, The Deal doesn’t suffer because of it. Like All the President’s Men, or the movie the screenwriter was last involved in, putting fictional words into the mouths of well known public figures is fine, as long as the intent is clear, and from the remaining bonus material on the disc, we discover how closely The Deal matched the truth. Of course, by keeping things small, situated between a few formidable individuals, such a strategy works well. And when you combine it with clever direction and amazing acting turns, the lack of documentary-like clarity is all forgiven.


This was Sheen’s first turn as Blair, and it’s clear that he learned more about the man before taking on Her Royal Highness in The Queen. While his up and coming Labour representative is seen as little more than a cunning chameleon (trading on his Scottish birth and London upbringing, embracing policies from both sides of the governing sphere), one sees the totality of the modern political animal in his smiling, scheming mannerism. In fact, for anyone wondering why Sheen’s Blair felt such compassion for Elizabeth II during the whole Princess Diana death debacle can see his situational acumen at work here. Certainly there are moments when we realize he is completely within his rights to do what he does. But there is no denying his “anything for a gain” gumption.


This is also true of Brown, though his old school bluster and dour personality made him a clear contradiction to lead the nation (though he is doing so now). He’s like a bulldog without a proper enemy to snipe at. His anger seems focused inward, every defeat Labour takes at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives acting like an internal body blow. Morrissey is very good at getting his glower on, especially in the middle sequences when it looks like his buddy Blair will indeed usurp him as the ‘darling’ of the party. Yet by the end, Brown has taken that determination to levels which outline why he would have to wait over a decade to gain the control he believed was his. By this point, he’s so scorned he’s practically inert.


When they are together onscreen, The Deal sizzles with a kind of critical chemistry. Both actors essay incredibly difficult material, since the public persona of both men was and remains well known to the intended audience (especially in the UK, where this TV movie first aired). In addition, you can literally feel the personal respect, professional reliance, and palpable reticence between the officials. While we don’t learn much about the British political system, we do understand what lures men into its service. Unlike the United States, which sees its representative form of government constantly cave into the needs of big business and corporate lobbyists, England seems to value the support of the constituency much more (even if playing to the people is merely logistical lip service).


With Morgan planning a final installment in his ‘Blair’ trilogy (focusing on the leader’s latter years interacting with Presidents Clinton and Bush), The Deal functions as more than just a companion piece to the Oscar winning Queen. Indeed, like something almost Shakespearean, it sets up a man who will see the very facets that aided in his ascension undo him in the end. What’s also clear is that no matter the public façade put on by the candidates, there’s always an equal amount of private jerryrigging going on as well. Elections are not won solely on the balloting of an interested public. What The Deal makes clear is that, in this arena, there are many more arrangements brokered than even the candidates can see.


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