Review: “Vice”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

Dick Cheney is widely considered the most powerful Vice President of all time.  But he had a lengthy political career prior to becoming VP to President George W. Bush in 2000 that shaped his ideals as he rose through the ranks of Washington.  But according to “Vice,” a partly biographical, partly satirical portrait of Cheney’s life and career written and directed by Adam McKay, Cheney doesn’t have any ideals, only a lust for power that doesn’t appear to be fueled by anything.

While it flip flops in time a bit, “Vice” opens in 1963, with young college dropout Cheney (Christian Bale) being arrested for drunk driving.  His girlfriend and soon-to-be-wife Lynne (Amy Adams) issues him an ultimatum: clean up his behavior and make something of himself, or she’ll leave him.  The story picks up a few years later in 1969, with Cheney working as a White House intern under Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell)—although we aren’t given any other information as to how his political aspirations came to be, an early indicator of how inconsistently the film presents information.  It’s here that we see him beginning to learn the ropes and making connections that will lead to Cheney eventually becoming Ford’s Chief of Staff, a representative for Wyoming, the first Bush’s Secretary of Defense, and, ultimately, the second Bush’s Vice President, with Cheney’s response to the September 11 attacks serving as a focal point and the ultimate example of him exercising the extraordinary executive powers issued to him by Bush.

McKay tells this story using the same methods he used in his 2015 film “The Big Short,” only they aren’t as effective here.  He assaults viewers’ senses with a barrage of images throughout the movie, taking on everything from the Iraq war and the Unitary executive theory to Cheney’s accidental shooting of a man on a hunting trip and his stance on gay marriage.  There are a few instances where McKay’s darkly humorous take on politics works, like a dinner scene in which subjects like Guantanamo Bay are literally on the menu, or the hilarious fake ending midway through the film.  Sometimes the imagery is overly obvious, like a scene in which Cheney receives a heart transplant and is literally heartless for a few moments.  Other issues that could have received more attention are glossed over, while others aren’t mentioned at all.  Sure, Cheney has had a long and eventful enough career that it’s difficult to fit everything into a 132 minute movie, but the film oddly glosses over his time as Secretary of Defense for the first President Bush and his involvement in the Persian Gulf War, something that would have better set up his stance on the war in Iraq later on.

Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell)

“Vice” also relies heavily on narration to tell its story, almost annoyingly so.  The narration is delivered by Jesse Plemons, who plays a guy called Kurt (we don’t find out until late in the film just who Kurt is; I won’t spoil it here).  It adds too much to an already complicated story that seems more devoted to telling us things, rather than showing them.  The performances delivered by the cast are excellent across the board, however.  Bale may lean too heavily into the Batman voice in his performance, but his transformation into Cheney is nothing short of remarkable.  The consistently great Adams continues her streak with her performance as Lynne, the true power behind the powerful man and maybe the only person who has real influence over him.  Carell is a great fit as the outspoken Rumsfeld, whose mouth may have garnered him some popularity in the 60s, but that gets him in trouble decades later; his character serves as a great measure of the power Cheney gains over the years.  Sam Rockwell plays George W. Bush as a party boy who’s in over his head, while other familiar faces pop in and out throughout the film, such as Naomi Watts as a news anchor and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.  One of the interesting things that the film does is utilize a lot of archival footage, sometimes using it as it, but when necessary splicing in the actor in place of the real person, further blurring the line between fiction and reality.

“Vice” is a remarkably cynical movie; this is obvious even beyond all the humor that fuels much of the film.  It ends with a puzzling set of scenes, the first in which Cheney turns to the camera and directly addresses the audience, coldly telling us that he has no regrets.  The second is a mid-credits scene depicting a focus group seen earlier in the film discussing the fight against Al Qaeda—only this time, they exist in the present, discussing the film itself.  An obnoxious fight breaks out between a liberal and a Trump supporter, while a careless audience looks on.  It’s less a necessity to the film than a nasty punch at the audience. 

As I mentioned at the top of the article, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Cheney’s craving for power stems from, thwarting any of the film’s meager attempts to humanize him.  Maybe it just boils down to a line Lynne delivers to their daughters: “When you have power, people will always try to take it from you.”  The title card at the beginning of the film notes how secretive Cheney has been, but that they did their best.  I think they could have done better.

Runtime: 132 minutes. Rated R.

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