Whether or not you enjoy this biopic on former Vice-President Dick Cheney may depend a great deal on how much you enjoy snark, skimming the surface of a subject who deserves a much deeper dive, and various approaches to telling a person’s life story, some of which are more of a distraction than illumination. There is little doubt that Cheney (as portrayed by Christian Bale, in effects makeup so convincing, it’s scary) is a figure we need to understand a great deal more than we do. An easy case can be made that connective tissue exists between the ways in which he changed the White House’s power structure and foreign policy during the presidency of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and the walking, breathing, divisive nightmare we’re living in today.
The other, perhaps even larger, factor that may determine your love/hate for Vice is whether you are fully prepared to laugh at the steps he took to snatch power away from the president while making Bush feel like they were his ideas. This film could be played out as a full-on tragedy, but much like writer-director Adam McKay did with his previous film, The Big Short, he takes a subject matter that should be terrifying (in that case, the US mortgage crisis) and makes us laugh at how bold and brazen these people were in their unprecedented power/money grabs. For the most part, what Cheney did wasn’t illegal because he and his cronies were the kings of legal loopholes. Vice admits freely in its opening titles that Cheney is one of the most secretive human beings ever to occupy such a high-profile position in government, so some of what is featured in this movie is speculative, but certainly none of it is difficult to believe.
The film features many unexpected, sometimes shocking narrative devices, beginning with a narration by a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), who seemingly has no connection to Cheney or his world. But their eventual intersection is as important to Cheney’s story as the day he met his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) or his eventual boss during his time in the Nixon administration, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, who goes less for imitation than Bale does and more for capturing Rumsfeld’s ramshackle personality). The brief glimpse into Cheney’s youth of hard drinking and troublemaking is fairly damning, and it culminates in Lynne delivering an earth-shaking ultimatum that seems to set him on the right path. I have zero love for the former VP, but even I think Vice is a bit of a hatchet job, and if you don’t subscribe to McKay’s politics, watching this film might sting for more than two hours. This is not to say the information is inaccurate, but the film feels like a laundry list of bad deeds, and even I’m willing to concede there may have been more to Cheney than just that. But I’m also a hopeless optimist.
Initially, the film portrays Cheney as more of an opportunist than a power-mad, shadow-lurking, heart attack machine (the portrayals of his various cardiac incidents are actually quite funny). He’s all about readying a situation, a person or an administration, and attempting to position himself as the loyal, insightful right-hand man of whomever is on the verge of success, like Rumsfeld. Even when Rumsfeld is transferred, leaving Cheney in the dust for a time, Cheney’s loyalty was not forgotten, and the two famously reconnected on Pennsylvania Avenue years later. What may end up driving some screaming from the theater are the multiple asides that McKay makes in his storytelling—from breaking the fourth wall (the lesser of his crimes) to shifting tone and style radically in order to capture the mood of the moment. Sometimes this works—like a very clever sequence in which the Cheneys talk in bed, and the Shakespearean aspects of the moment are so obvious that they end up speaking as if in a Shakespeare play. I also liked a bit when McKay jokingly ends the movie halfway through, following a moment in history that didn’t actually happen, but, boy, it would have been great if it had. It’s a bold move by the filmmaker, but it comes across as unnecessary at best and condescending at its worst.
It’s difficult to begrudge the film its entry-level look at Cheney’s accomplishments/deeds, because if you tell a story like this for only the most politically savvy and knowledgeable, you risk alienating most of your potential audience. Even still, there’s no harm in giving your audience a little credit when it comes to worldly events and drawing their own conclusions. As presented here, Cheney resembles Penguin, the classic Batman villain, minus the spiffy clothes and monocle. When the film treats him as a man who was a masterful manipulator who chose to use his intelligence to push a dangerous agenda, but might have turned out differently under other circumstances, it’s easier to digest and be impressed by. When he’s twirling his invisible mustache, it lost me.
Strangely, the one place McKay does give Cheney some credit has to do with how he stood by his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) when her being a lesbian threatened his credibility as an ultra-conservative. He wouldn’t disown her or criticize her life, and it put him in a certain dangerous position. But even that glimmer of humanity is eventually extinguished, don’t worry. The film features a host of familiar faces playing other familiar faces—Tyler Perry as Colin Powell is probably the most impressive, but also making things fun are LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleeza Rice, Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, and Lily Rabe as the other Cheney daughter Liz. Everyone is having a bit of fun with their parts, but few are digging anywhere below the surface.
Bale and Adams are both impressive in their performances, but never more so than when they are together, challenging each other on how far they can take things. McKay very much sees Lynne Cheney as a co-conspirator in her husband’s power moves, and there is little mercy for her either. Carell and Rockwell are a hoot, but in the end they are simply providing us with a respite from the “Cheney as super-villain” narrative. McKay’s tactics don’t bother me as much as his results. It would have been truly something to have walked out of Vice having been both entertained and educated, and as a learning experience, I found the film sadly lacking. More than an outright failure, Vice is more of a substantial missed opportunity.
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