R, 132 mins.
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
writer/director Adam McKay was a rather unlikely Oscar winner for his work
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
trilogy - but there's more to his performance than
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
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.