Richard Bruce Cheney (Christian Bale) served as the 46th Vice President of the United States, under President George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), from 2001 to 2009. But, the impact he had, during, before and after his term as VP, will resonate for years to come, not necessarily in good ways, in “Vice.”
The title of this Adam McKay written and directed tome about a man who, I personally feel, was a war criminal, has double meaning, if you think about the word and Dick Cheney. The filmmakers do due diligence in digging into and utilizing the copious information about our former VP, his life in politics and his rise behind the scenes, always with his career and garnering political power in mind.
This biographic drama tells Cheney’s story from his days, in the early 60s, when he was convicted for DUI and brawling – twice – all the way through, decades later, to his tenure as the power behind the George W. Bush presidential throne. I think those not very familiar with our former VP will get an adequate history lesson. I am very familiar with Cheney and his checkered past, so “Vice” was just a checklist for me. To his credit, Adam McKay makes a complete list to check off. I give it a B-.
When Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) is arrested for DUI for the second time in 1963, Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) tells him in no uncertain terms that if he doesn't live up to her ambitions, there are other fish in the sea. The Yale flunkee latches onto Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and enters politics under the Nixon administration, working his way up the ladder as Gerald Ford's Chief of Staff and George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense. Unwilling to thrust his gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) into the harsh political spotlight, Cheney retreated from political life to become CEO of Halliburton, but when his former boss's son George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) comes calling, Cheney foresees a lucrative end game as "Vice."
Writer/director Adam McKay made a huge leap three years ago, graduating from his "Anchorman" movies to a hair raising and hilarious account of the 2008 financial crisis with "The Big Short." I am, therefore, sad to say that he's taken a big step backwards with his highly anticipated new film. While the multiple story lines and complex subject of his last were buoyed by McKay's amusing financial explanatory asides, his use of the same device for this single-stranded biopic is overbearing and unwarranted. Christian Bale is a great actor, but while he gets Cheney's mannerisms down, he never really gets under the man's skin, his interpretation of Cheney's 'neer-do-well' years played more with his future running mate's amiable vacancy than Cheney's cunning. Other than Lynne's maneuverings behind the throne, we're given no idea how the man evolved.
McKay leaps all over the place, taking us from early days in Wyoming to the White House Operations Center on 9/11/2001 where Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) doesn't quite seem to know what to make of Cheney issuing presidential orders of his own making. After Dick sidetracks out of politics for the sake of his daughter Mary, McKay even runs credits, implying one version of Cheney has ended, and indeed it has as we will see later when his other daughter Liz (Lily Rabe) runs for a senate seat and the subject of gay marriage rears its head once more (Amy Adams' curt nod allowing Liz to condemn same-sex marriage - and therefore her own sister - for political gain is chilling).
It's all here, the restoration of Donald Rumsfeld to power after his banishment to NATO, the approval of torture, the self-dealing during the war years, Colin Powell's (Tyler Perry) sacrificial cover for wishful intelligence, the underestimation of future ISIS leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the hunting accident, the multiple heart attacks. The film's best scene is Cheney's playing of W during his running mate interview, the man agreeing to the job his wife regards as 'nothing' if W cedes running such minor things as bureaucracy, the military, energy and foreign policy, a proposal George Jr. eats up.
But McKay doesn't know when to quit, overloading his film with metaphorical cutaways to fishing lures, an Everyman narrator (Jesse Plemons) who pops up in multiple incarnations, a waiter (Alfred Molina) spieling off a menu of torture methods in a fantastical power dining establishment and a scene of pillow talk between Cheney and his own Lady MacBeth in Shakespearean iambic pentameter. Reportedly, Paul Thomas Anderson convinced him to cut a Cheney/Rumsfeld musical number.
Bale's performance may be technically proficient, but this is the first time I've observed his acting, his employing tricks and tics to create a character that has little interior life. Better is Amy Adams as the ambitious, scheming Lynne, a Republican with a hatred for 'elites' who decries Nixon's ouster as political sabotage. Pill and Rabe are also convincing as the politically pitted sisters. Hamilton and Perry look shockingly like their real life counterparts. Steve Carell delivers a caricature, a cartoon, where several others, like the great character actor Eddie Marsan (as Paul Wolfowitz) get lost in the shuffle. Sam Rockwell, though, is an absolute delight as George W. Bush, the film's funniest and most dead-on portrayal.
"Vice" is a good primer on the corruption of power that was Dick Cheney, the most powerful Vice President in American history. It is even intermittently entertaining. But McKay's 'throw-everything-at-the-wall-to-see-what-sticks' direction makes "Vice" a seven ring circus.
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