A film review by Craig J. Koban January 12, 2019

VICE jjj
   

2018, R, 132 mins.

 

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney  /  Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney  /  Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld  /  Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush  /  Tyler Perry as Colin Powell  /  Jesse Plemons as Narrator  /  Alison Pill as Mary Cheney  /  Lily Rabe as Liz Cheney  /  Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby  /  LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice  /  Shea Whigham as Wayne Vincent  /  Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz

Written and directed by Adam McKay

 

 

 

In 2015 writer/director Adam McKay was a rather unlikely Oscar winner for his work on THE BIG SHORT, which was an absurd satirical take on the 2008 Financial Crisis and the devastating impact it had on America.  The central theme of that film was how people in places of limitless wealth and power nearly destroyed the country...out of pure greed to attain more wealth and power...and at the expense of the poor.  It was both as hysterical as it was shocking. 

Utilizing the same high octane and in-your-face stylistic choices in THE BIG SHORT - fourth wall breaking explanations, amusing and damning editorial juxtapositions, and hyper quick assembled montages - McKay now sets his sights on the former Vice President of the United States in Dick Cheney in VICE, which chronicles his initial desire to seek political office and eventual ascension to VP.  

Many historians and scholars would easily agree that during Cheney's run from 2001 to 2009 he was the most power VP in American history,  and arguably one of the least popular ever (he only had a 13 per cent approval rating when he left office).  Cheney might be the most influential of all of the VPs in terms of power exuded - he was a leading player in President George W. Bush's response to the 9/11 attacks, the later global war on terror, and later the even more polarizing Iraq War.  But who was this man?  Really?  So very little is known about Cheney that, to the film's amusing credit, opening title cards indicate that the makers pieced together as much information about him as they could: (exact quote) "We did our fucking best."  What emerges is a somewhat messy affair with a scattershot focus on its themes and political targets at times.  But, hot damn, McKay displays the same level of ambitious swagger as he did with THE BIG SHORT (albeit with a little less discipline), and his film does include some instances of masterful satire.  Plus, it highlights Christian Bale - one of our greatest living actors when it comes to performance immersion - in full-on beast mode.

 

 

We meet Cheney (Bale) early in the film, not at the zenith of his political might, but rather as a hard partying and frequently drunken Wyoming resident that is not particularly impressing his wife, Lynne (a rock solid Amy Adams), who gives him a sternly worded ultimatum: Shape up or they're done.  Not wanting to ruining his once stable marriage, Dick decides to venture into politics, and begins his career as a lowly intern for Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) during President Nixon's tenure in office.  Cheney becomes a good, loyal gofer to Rumsfeld, but he soon also learns of the inherent powers of both the Presidency and Vice Presidency.  When his own aspirations of becoming President himself lead to failed runs, Dick decides to take a stab at corporate business and eventually becomes the head of Halliburton, believing that his days under the political spotlight are over.  Things change, though, when George W. Bush (an inspired Sam Rockwell) shows up on the scene to launch his own Presidential run and passionately asks Cheney to be his experienced VP.  Dick initially declines every offer, but when he learns of some well guarded and mostly unknown legal loopholes that would give him unprecedented power as VP, he jumps at the chance.  

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Cheney's life, on paper - and based on what little we know of him - is pretty fascinating.  He essentially came from relative obscurity and was a mediocre to failing college student without much scholastic promise, but eventually became a millionaire CEO and would ultimately, in the second place of power in the free world, become a predominant influence - some would say for the worse - as to the how the modern world was shaped.  9/11 was essentially a catalyst for him to flex his muscles using the "Unitary Executive Theory", or a position of near Godlike power over the entire executive branch of American politics, to lead the charge on Bush's war on terrors, which would ushering in a whole generation of fears about global terrorism.  As Bush's puppetmaster, he would also oversee the Patriot Act (warantless surveillance on American citizens) and a highly contestable war in Iraq looking for smoking gun weapons of mass destruction that were never really there.  It was also a war that led to countless numbers of lives lost.  Cheney was also a guarded family man, who secretly had a gay daughter, but publicly ran on platforms against gay marriage...even though he loved and supported her.  

This man was a walking contradiction.

As already mentioned, I think I left VICE feeling like I admired so much of its audacious ambition with the material more so than I appreciated its overall execution of said material.  There's a certain level of connect the dot level of inferences - and risky ones at that - that McKay and company take in trying to piece together a cohesive overview of the life and inner psychology of Cheney that was notoriously secretive in the public eye.  No doubt, the whole special relationship that Bush had with Cheney in terms of shaping policy and, yes, the world as a whole is indeed a compelling journey for a film to take on, and Cheney was easily an unparalleled figure as a towering presence in American politics, especially considering how the VP position, before his time, was largely considered a symbolic one and, well, kind of a joke.   One of the more enthralling aspects of VICE is in how it crafts this intimate portrait of a man that was once considered a go nowhere failure in life who turned everything around to take on a position in government that was widely regarded as useless... and then made it one of relevance and scope.  You can question and scrutinize Cheney for his questionable politics, but he deserves credit for taking the ball as VP and running with it as no other VP had done in history.

VICE is also littered with bravura moments of scathing satire that pulls no punches and goes for the proverbial jugular.  There's a brilliantly realized moment when Cheney and his wife have a spirited discussion in bed about whether he should take on the VP role...but all done in Shakespearean iambic pentameter and evoking MACBETH.  There are continual moments throughout showcasing Cheney taking names and kicking asses of his various opponents in life, all juxtaposed against violent animal on animal action from the wild (perhaps this was a bit too on the nose).  There's a splendidly cheeky fake out, happily ever after ending midway through the film - replete with faux end credits - when Cheney and family decide to exit politics after Jimmy Carter is elected.  Perhaps my favorite sequence in the film has Alfred Moligna showing up as a waiter in a posh restaurant, offering up to Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their cronies the popular appetizers of the menu, which includes illegal tortures and wire tapings.  The eager to order Rumsfeld deadpans, "Oh, that sounds good!"

The performances in the film are as top drawer as expected, in particular the unexpected potency of Carell as Rumsfeld, who doesn't outright look like him, nor does he sound much like him, but he nevertheless seems to inhabit this man and his throw caution to the wind disposition.  Sam Rockwell may also not be everyone's idea of a dead ringer for Dubya, but he's an intriguing choice here because he plays the role relatively straight and never succumbs to playing the ex-President as an awkward and uncoordinated clown, but more or less as an inexperienced politician that was in over his head and needed Cheney to survive.  And then there's Bale as Cheney himself, and the actor notoriously gained dozens of pounds of fat to look plausible as an elderly and tubby Cheney (no fat suit for him).  Bale has a legendary reputation for physical transformations in his career - he lost an unhealthy amount of weight to play an insomniac anorexic in THE MACHINIST and then immediately followed that up by gaining nearly 100 pounds of muscle to play Batman in Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT trilogy - but there's more to his performance than physical mimicry.  He embodies Cheney's soft spoken and gravel voiced pragmatism while showing him as a confident, but conflicted man whose politics often came to blows with his family life.  Bale utterly disappears as Cheney here to the point where the actor becomes invisible in the role.   

Part of my problem, though, with VICE is that - for as far reaching as its narrative scope is - McKay's screenplay seems to gloss over a lot of juicy details about Cheney's life, like his difficult relationship he had with his homosexual daughter, whom he would do anything to protect, but would still come out publicly against her lifestyle choice if it meant political gain.  A lot of other elements are handled with obligatory biopic broadness without much embellishment, often having the negative side effect of making VICE come off like it's deeply invested in its subject matter without thoroughly investigating it.  There are also times as well when McKay seems reticent about what he's really wanting his film to say about Cheney and those around him.  Is VICE meant to be a warts and all biopic of Cheney's life...or a spoof of the madness of American politics...or a semi-serious and semi-farcical outlook on Cheney's polarizing Vice Presidency...or a combination of all of those extremes?  VICE'S whiplash-like tonal jumping throughout often makes it a difficult film to process and frankly truly embrace.

The narrative time jumps - back and forth from the past to present - don't help matters much either and will probably confuse most viewers.  Perhaps a better version of VICE could have been made if it just focused exclusively on Cheney's time in the White House, but the ricocheting nature of story and how its careens all over the place makes the film seem disorganized.  I respect McKay for taking on targets so large and varied in the film, and VICE does make for a nice companion piece to THE BIG SHORT (both share the commonality of expression deep moral outrage and the mixture of depressing pathos and macabre laughs).  VICE has considerable going for it in Bale's tour de force performance and in McKay's willingness to swing for the fences with the underling material, but it's just more of a solid three base hit than a home run as far as political satires go.  VICE has moments of incendiary wit, but sometimes is a tad hollow minded and uncoordinated.  There's a telling moment in the film when Cheney breaks the forth wall, addresses and informs us that he has zero regrets for how he handled himself in office.  McKay's approach in VICE, in many ways and for the purposes of symmetry, displays the same level of stubborn, but never look back confidence. 

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