The Untold True Story That Changed the Course of History
Following on from his suddenly serious crossover critical darling, The Big Short (2015), director and writer Adam McKay continues his explorations of realpolitik and real politics with Vice, a satirical biopic of former US Vice President Dick Cheney (an unrecognizable and excellent Christian Bale). And yes, the punning title is deliberate.
McKay tracks Cheney’s ascendancy from hard-drinking, drunk-driving county linesman and college dropout to his unprecedented position as éminence grise of the Bush Jr. (a jaw-droppingly perfect Sam Rockwell) presidency, pulling the strings and effectively running the show for the goofy, aw-shucks idiot boy-king as the world changes forever in the shadow of the collapsing Twin Towers.
Along the way we meet Cheney’s wife and moral compass, the Machiavellian and Macbethian Lynne (Amy Adams); his mentor, rough-hewn political operator Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell); and touch base with various other members of the GOP political machine as we skip lightly across the decades from Watergate to 9/11 or thereabouts, taking in a great sweep of history and malfeasance in a fairly engaging but nonetheless light manner.
And that is the problem with Vice. While The Big Short, McKay’s swing-for-the-fences angry polemic about the Global Financial Crisis, went deep into a confusing and controversial situation and made it both understandable and endlessly infuriating, Vice tells us a great many things we already know about, but fails to bring new context or insight to bear on them. It’s also worth noting that The Big Short was an incredible stylistic departure for McKay following his string of successful Frat Pack comedies — Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), Step Brothers (2008), The Other Guys (2010), et al. — and novelty counts. Here he’s dipping into the same bag of tricks but to lesser effect.
Perhaps the issue is that Vice spreads itself too thin, and in trying to encompass so much of Cheney’s life, it fails to examine any element closely enough. Perhaps fear of litigation prevented McKay and his team from leveling some of the more egregious charges that they could have brought to bear on the man (as an example, the 2006 hunting accident that saw Cheney shoot Texan attorney Harry Whittington in the face is glossed over quickly). Perhaps, as the film itself points out, Cheney is and was simply too secretive to leave much grist for the mill.
Still, it’s always fun to see Bale in the role, making ponderous proclamations from under his layers of prosthetics and fat, playing Cheney much like Tuddy Cicero in Goodfellas (1990). The rest of the cast is on point, too; Amy Adams, American Hustle (2013), may get the most time center stage, and Steve Carell, The Big Short (2015), may get the most colorful role, but this is an ensemble that includes Tyler Perry, Gone Girl (2014), as Colin Powell, LisaGay Hamilton, Jackie Brown (1997), as Condoleezza Rice, Eddie Marsan, Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), as Paul Wolfowitz, and Bill Pullman, Independence Day (1996), as Nelson Rockefeller.
Alison Pill, Milk (2008), is a standout as Mary Cheney, Dicks’ openly gay daughter, who functions as a kind of moral barometer for him; his silence on gay rights issues is noted and attributed to her presence in his life, which is a humanizing detail — up to a point.
Cheney as a character remains opaque to us, though, even after a late in the game to-camera speech which tries to explicate his motives. There’s an attempt to connect his obviously venal and self-serving motives with some kind of hard-nosed commitment to national security, but it either doesn’t land or else is meant ironically (in which case it still doesn’t land). Rather, Cheney and all his colleagues are engaged in a battle for power for its own sake, which may be accurate but isn’t particularly interesting — especially when the thrill of wielding that power is never dramatized. This idea, however, is at least anchored in an event of historical importance — the collapse of the Nixon administration, here positioned as a driver for Cheney and co.’s fascination with and championing of absolute Presidential power. Still, we never seem to get more than skin deep, or much past the foyer of the vaunted and shadowy corridors of power.
Ultimately, ‘GOP powerbrokers are amoral bastards’ might be an incontrovertible fact but, like ‘water is wet’ and ‘the sky is blue,’ might be too obvious a thesis for a feature film. Vice is well made, well written, and packed with excellent performances — it’s just not as revelatory as it clearly thinks it is.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson