Synopsis – The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
My Take – A film centered on American Politics will sound outright boring to most members of a general audience, after all who wants to digest all that complicated information, right? But I guess an exception can be made if the film is director by Adam McKay, who is undergoing one history. Known initially for his hilarious Will Ferrell led films like Talladega Nights, Anchorman, Step Brothers and The Other Guys, as a director McKay grew into more prominence with the release of his 2015 film, The Big Short, a heady, serious-minded film that chronicled the ins and outs of the 2008 financial crisis.
While the topic was quite daunting and heady, director McKay retained his trademark humor though, adopting a self-reflexive, fourth-wall-breaking zaniness which made the thickets of economic speak appealing and accessible, and most importantly wildly entertaining.
His latest film, a biopic-of-sorts, about former Vice President Dick Cheney, is also ostensibly in the same vein, using dark humor, creative editing, and fourth wall breakdown to pack complicated information about a man who turned the largely ceremonial American vice presidency into a weapon to be wielded, to smite the enemy and amass riches for his allies with brutal efficacy.
Watching this film can feel like watching a highlight reel from the late 20th and early 21st century, both digestible and entertaining, except the actions on screen tend to end up disturbing you. And certainly, the film is not an attempt to convert anyone to a new way of thinking; the audience for this sort of film is likely already sympathetic to the most obvious of director McKay’s theses, which is that Dick Cheney used his power ruthlessly and heartlessly to cost so much lives.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the utter commitment of Christian Bale, who achieves an immersive rendering of the former vice president’s mannerisms: gravelly voice, permanent-head tilt, eyes filled with naked contempt. While gaining those may extra pounds, here, Bale does his best to get inside the head of a war criminal who thrives in polite society. His performance is complemented by the adept Amy Adams, who brings nuance and complexity to former Second Lady Lynne Cheney, who was as brilliant, ambitious, and an equally ruthless partner.
The story follows Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), who back in 1963 was drunk gambler, who used spend his days up an electricity pole and his nights on the bottle. After being kicked out of Yale for being his dangerous lifestyle and occasional bar room fisticuffs, his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him an ultimatum to either change his life around or else she will walk out on him. Redeeming himself, Dick ends up marrying Lynne and finds himself at a congressional internship program in 1968, where he begins to work under Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), a Republican and his future ally.
Slowly rising up the ranks, through the Nixon and Gerald Ford (Bill Camp) administrations, Dick ends up eventually becomes chief of staff and enters the corporate world as CEO of Halliburton, the military contractor that would go on to make bucket-loads of money in Iraq and Afghanistan. After serving six terms in Congress, Dick’s life owing to being on the losing side of the party and his deteriorating health, seemed to be almost over until he gets offered by George W. Bush (Sam Rockell), a job of vice presidency under his administration. Seeing Bush Jr as the perfect president to operate through, Dick rallies his forces and amasses immense power under the presidency, through a controversial concept known as Unitary Executive Theory.
Here we are treated to the origins of some of the most corrosive ideas in American politics, like Scalia’s passing mention of “unitary executive theory”—the idea that nothing a president does is illegal and therefore cannot be prosecuted. In one telling scene, Cheney gripes that the problem with Nixon’s “sloppy” Watergate cover-up wasn’t that Nixon broke the law—it’s that he got caught. On the surface, the film is a character study film, portraying the former vice president’s claim to fame, rise to power and insatiable appetite to control, but it is about so much more.
What it may lack in delivering the most infamous VP’s humanity, it makes up for in style and substance in other forms. It successfully depicts one of the most volatile political times in recent history, casting a cinematic net over the post 911, George W. Bush era, and then some, including shedding light current politics in the wake of the Cheney era. And it was okay to take a humorous tone because of the absurd farce it all was. Through good guys and bad, the facts were laid bare. This film is not an attempt to depict the life of one of the most notorious political influencers of recent decades without bias.
It is, however, based firmly in fact and its backs up its dramatic assertions with little asides in the manner that worked so well in The Big Short. The thoroughness of the research behind it shows in the details of sets, costumes and props as well as in the dialogue, with superbly detailed reproductions throughout. This contributes to a realism whose contrast with the more outrageous comedic moments contributes significantly to their impact, much like the way that Cheney‘s ability to make himself useful in an unassuming way contrasted with his disproportionate power at the moments when he chose to take action.
This style of storytelling director McKay has latched onto is effective in getting a ton of information out in ways that stick because we feel as though we’re having fun. But is it fun to learn that Cheney coerced Bush into putting Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) on an international stage to spew unsubstantiated intelligence that ultimately led to the rise of ISIS? Is it fun to learn that Cheney may have masterminded an entire movement towards solidifying executive power to the point of autocratic ambitions as a means of self-preservation rather than national security? No. The film also does not traffic in subtlety. Every edit, transition, and break of the fourth wall feels like a kick to the teeth, an anger born of frustration at the limits of collective memory and society’s eagerness to rehabilitate war criminals. When the legacies of men responsible for such staggering body counts seem to be absolved by nothing more than the passage of time, there’s no way to render Dick Cheney in light strokes.
To balance his character’s inherent ruthlessness, Bale’s Cheney is a devoted family man who’s fiercely protective of his wife and children, especially Mary (Alison Pill), who came out as a lesbian in high school. When he’s not running a major oil company or doctoring evidence for a highly profitable war, Cheney is seen enjoying outdoor lunches with his family on their sprawling lawn in a bucolic DC suburb and casually chatting about American Idol. Moments like these don’t humanize Cheney so much as render the banality of his evil.
The reverse hero’s journey is rounded out with portrayals of Cheney’s victims—Iraqi civilians, members of the armed services, mentors who outlived their usefulness—represented through heavy use of archival combat footage, its resultant destruction, and the notorious images from Abu Ghraib prison. I
smiled at the Shakespearean soliloquy, praised the wit of Alfred Molina‘s torture-selling waiter, and smirked seeing Naomi Watts as a fourth-wall breaking TV journalist (especially considering she played Valerie Plame in Fair Game, a woman whose name of course comes up here). And the use of Jesse Plemons as an unknown omniscient narrator acting out those citizens Cheney’s policies hurt? Structural perfection.
But make no mistake: The filmmaker wants us to be thinking about Donald Trump. What he’s telling us implicitly, then more obviously is that if you’re upset today about what you might see as, say, a brazen executive-branch power grab, well, that already happened and pretty recently. It’s just that we didn’t really notice because, director McKay argues, Dick Cheney did it so darned quietly.
The weakness here, though, is that we never get a sense of what truly drives Cheney the man. The shiny bells and whistles that director McKay employs, because, well, he’s good at it, detract from our ability to get to know his subject. Is Cheney merely an opportunist, or is he fueled by a deeper purpose, and how? It’s not totally clear. Also, the pacing in the second half doesn’t quite match the first; things slowing down to look at the crucial years 2000-2005. It has a strange effect of making the film both feel 15 minutes too long, and 15 minutes too short – seemingly avoiding some of the details the film may have welcomed, while also dragging its feet in comparison to the rapid fire first half.
But it’s in the performances where the film truly shines, led by a terrifically committed performance from Christian Bale. Over the years much has been made of Bale’s ability to morph into a character, with notable sacrifices, such as reducing half his body weight for the 2004 film, The Machinist. Here, he did the opposite, gaining a significant amount of weight to convincingly capture the physicality of Cheney. Beyond what he brought to the role, physically, he is at the top of his game in every other way. He’s believable as the young, down on his luck drunkard putting up lines for the electric company in Wyoming, as well as the starry eyed political intern hanging on Rumsfeld’s every word. As the character ages, growing in size and power, Bale shines.
Amy Adams is also terrific (as always) as the ideological force behind the man, her husband’s private coach in every step he takes on the way to becoming a virtual co-president and perhaps the most powerful man on the planet. In supporting roles, Sam Rockwell’s breezy portrayal is a joy to watch, while Steve Carrell proves as entertaining a performance as it is an inspired casting choice, and Tyler Perry adds a careful amount of humanity to one of the biggest internal critics of the War in Iraq. In smaller roles, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, Justin Kirk, Shea Whigham, LisaGay Hamilton, Eddie Marsan, Bill Camp, Alfred Molina and Naomi Watts manage to stand out. On the whole, ‘Vice’ is a frenetic yet entertaining political film which despite is frustrations deserves a watch for its performances.
Directed – Adam McKay
Rated – R
Run Time – 132 minutes