Adam McKay's Vice is a satirical indictment of politician and businessman Dick Cheney, positing him as a coiled opportunist, a quiet, intensely private man whose greatest asset is his seemingly infinite capacity to take advantage of any situation to maximize his own accumulation of power. Although Cheney is often thought of in partisan terms, McKay, who both wrote and directed, takes the curious approach of presenting him not as a hard-line, hawkish conservative, but rather as a man who desired wealth and power and found that the best path to those was through the Republican Party. McKay even dramatizes the moment that Cheney decides to identify as a Republican not with some great ideological revelation or political awakening, but rather in response to hearing a sharp, direct-to-the-point speech by Donald Rumsfeld, at the time a Cabinet-level counselor to Richard Nixon. Cheney is drawn to his directness, not his ideology.
McKay's portrait of Cheney begins in Wisconsin in the late 1950s, when Cheney (Christian Bale) was an aimless young man, much more attracted to drinking and fighting than power and money. Despite getting into the hallowed halls of the Ivy League, he continued to flounder in booze and misadventure until finally being whipped into shape by his fiance Lynne (Amy Adams), who tells him in no uncertain terms that he is to either make something of himself or she is out the door. McKay portrays Lynne as a calculating woman of serious ambition and practicality who recognized Cheney's potential before he did and pushed him in the direction of history; she's not quite a Lady Macbeth figure, scheming and manipulating her husband into disaster, but rather a kind of silent partner who nevertheless has much to say behind closed doors (in one of the film's more memorable flights of fancy, Dick and Lynne actually engage in Shakespearean iambic pentameter when debating what political course he should take). In one of the film's rare moments of empathy with Cheney, he is sharply chastised by Lynne when he engages in some play with his young daughter, telling her he is like an elf when he is promoted to Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford. "If you're silly with her, she'll grow up to be a silly woman," Lynne says sharply, to which Dick immediately acquiesces and apologizes. It is literally the only time Cheney apologizes for anything in the entire film; in fact, the film ends with Cheney addressing us directly, rebuking our implied judgment that he might have done anything wrong and embracing what he purports to be his role in protecting all of us from the violence of evil doers.
McKay offers no apologies either, and he goes after Cheney and the power structure that he was able to manipulate to his own devices with the same sense of aesthetic brashness and rage against the machine that he brought to The Big Short (2016), his breakout, Oscar-nominated dramatization of the 2008 housing collapse. The two films are very much of a piece, as they use a fiery, wry, and sharply humorous approach to their depiction of how corruption not only exists, but positively flourishes as the highest levels of business and government and there's little that can be done about it. In The Big Short, a small, unlikely group of oddballs saw the signs and cashed in on the collapse while the rest of the country suffered and the banks were bailed out and absolved of their role; in Vice, Cheney moves through the system, accumulating power until he essentially becomes the shadow President, pulling the strings of the George W. Bush administration to his own ends (which more than often involves ensuring new profits and control for oil and other big-business interests, including his own company, Haliburton). One of the key ideas in the film is the Unitary executive theory, a legal interpretation of Article 2 in the Constitution that the President has absolutely authority, a notion that clearly resonates with Cheney's desire for control. In the film's second scene, we see him in a hidden conference room on 9/11, giving orders over the phone with Presidential authority while those around him stare in shock. Dick doesn't blink.
This does not mean that the film is completely devoid of empathy for Cheney or presents him simply as a cartoonish figure of malevolence, as John Stewart used to do on The Daily Show with the recurring segment "You Don't Know Dick," which delivered unsetting factoids about Cheney like his keeping a man-sized safe in his office and having his house scrubbed from Google Maps (neither of which is mentioned in Vice). Cheney is humanized primarily via his relationship with his gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill). Cheney loves his daughter and is fiercely protective of her, even the political party he represents constantly seeks to demonize the gay community and limit their civil rights. The quiet, warm manner in which he receives Mary's coming out as a college student stands in stark contrast to Lynne, who draws in her breath and immediately notes how Mary's homosexuality will complicate his running for Congress.
In many ways, Vice is the film that Oliver Stone attempted and failed to make in W. (2008), his too-soon take on George W. Bush. While Stone floundered in his attempt to evoke the surreal absurdities of the Dubya years via sharply contrasting tones, McKay consistently balances drama and comedy, history and satire, outrage and disbelief. It's not a perfect film by any mean, but it does what it seeks to do very well, even if it necessarily skips over large swaths of Cheney's story, notable his role in the first Gulf War as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. Virtually nothing is off the table, and McKay goes to town with fly-fishing metaphors, on-screen text, direct address, jumbled chronology, a false ending halfway through the film, and an oddball narrative approach in which the story is narrated by a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), whose extremely close relationship to Cheney is not revealed until late in the film.
McKay is aided and abetted by an impressive cast who largely disappears into the historical figures they're playing. Much has already been written about Christian Bale's uncanny turn as Cheney; his extreme physical resemblance to the real-life man is matched only by Bale's exacting replication of his mannerisms. At times it feels a bit too much like impersonation, but that is partially because Cheney is so closed off for most of the time. Adams is exceptional as Lynne, as is Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney's chief mentor in political cynicism and opportunism (which a younger, still forming Cheney naively asks Rumsfeld what they believe politically, Rumsfeld just laughs in his face). Sam Rockwell does a serviceable George W. Bush, although he is largely sidelined given the narrative focus on Cheney and his fundamental usurpation of Presidential power.
Vice won't likely reveal anything new to those in the know, and it is even less likely to change the mind of anyone who feels that Cheney was working hard to protect the American people, but it does present a consistently fascinating and highly entertaining portrait of the mechanics of power and how the worst human impulses all too often function as the grease that keeps them churning.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Paramount Pictures
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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