Review: "Vice" is a dramatic, complex look at an American villain

by Willem Gerrish | 1/10/19 2:35am

Adam McKay seems to have something of an obsession with the American culture of corruption and excess. After his masterfully quirky 2015 film “The Big Short” about the 2008 financial collapse, the writer and director has now turned his sharp, sardonic eye toward former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney. The aptly titled “Vice” is something of an exposé on the infamously secretive Cheney, revealing how president George W. Bush’s VP connived his way into becoming one of the most powerful vice-presidents in American history. While the film doesn’t quite match the sheer brilliance and impact of “The Big Short,” “Vice” is still an impressive piece of filmmaking that displays McKay’s distinctively strange and sarcastic style of writing and directing.

“Vice” is a film that fosters a very complicated relationship with the truth. Indeed, much criticism has been launched at the movie for its supposedly inaccurate portrayal of real-life people and events. But McKay is the sort of filmmaker who only cares for the truth so much as it allows him to craft an engaging story, and the resulting film is simultaneously grounded in reality and twisted into a caricature that is almost blasé about its shaky verisimilitude. The film opens with a statement that the movie is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history. But we did our f—ing best.” Meanwhile, later scenes openly address the fact that this movie is at least partly fictional. In one instance, as Cheney and his wife Lynne are discussing whether or not he should sign on as Bush’s running mate, the narrator pauses the action to tell us that nobody actually knows what was going through Cheney’s mind or what he talked about with his wife. Then, in one of McKay’s grandest extravagances, Dick and Lynne engage in a comedic Shakespearean dialogue complete with Elizabethan English and formal addresses. Moments like these are McKay’s way of shoving his artistic license down the viewers’ throats. He knows that any sensible human will realize that the Cheneys didn’t actually discuss major life decisions in the Bard’s tongue and should accept the scene for what it is: a dramatization. And this seems to be the best way to approach “Vice” overall — as a movie that takes drama and humor more seriously than it does the truth.

The film uses a jarring, disjointed narrative to tell its story, leaping around between time periods and interspersing images of American culture and everyday life. The latter is one of my favorite McKayisms, a tactic that he employed beautifully in “The Big Short” and does so again here. These collages of pure Americanism — images of a Walmart cashier, a working-class kitchen table and millennials partying to forget their struggles — help ground the film’s grandiosity in the stark truth of American reality. They remind us that while Cheney was ordering extraordinary rendition and legitimizing torture, the nation over which he presided was soldiering on in hedonism, strife and complacency. What’s more, almost every person in the theater was alive during Cheney’s tenure — we were all a part of that army of ignorance.

The weakest aspect of “Vice” is the narrative itself. The film tracks Cheney’s life from his college years as a drunkard who got kicked out of Yale to the present day, and it seems to me that taking such a broad approach was a mistake on McKay’s part. The truth is, Cheney’s life before the vice-presidency was not all that interesting. He married his hometown sweetheart, worked as a Congressional intern for representative Donald Rumsfeld, and held a number of positions in the Ford and Bush Senior presidencies — impressive, yes, but not exactly riveting stuff. As the movie tracks these developments, it begins to get bogged down in boredom as we await Cheney’s inevitable power play. Finally, the real drama and intrigue begin as Cheney strikes a deal with the younger Bush: he’ll be his V.P., but he doesn’t want it to be just a “nothing job” — he wants significant control of military, energy and a plethora of other governmental sectors. Bush agrees, and the proverbial game is afoot. This happens about halfway through the film, and the ensuing action is kinetically enjoyable. We see Cheney weasel his way around both traditional vice-presidential precedents and the law itself to achieve his goals of power and control. When 9/11 happens, and the entire American government is in crisis, Cheney is calm and calculating as he realizes he’s presiding over a golden opportunity to consolidate power and capitalize on the blind faith of the American public in a time of overwhelming fear. If McKay had focused his film solely on this period in Cheney’s life without slogging through the details of his development, he could have achieved something much more enjoyable and captivating without losing an iota of the film’s importance.

Despite the occasionally sluggish narrative, “Vice” still has a major point of interest running the length of the film: the magnetic, resounding performances of its actors. As Cheney, Christian Bale is unrecognizable beneath a massive weight gain and some phenomenal prosthetics, and he plays the part with a monotonous, brooding air that adds to the semi-villainous portrait that McKay is painting. Around him are a tremendous Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, an uproarious Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and a delightfully drawling Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. These performances command the screen even as McKay’s script occasionally lags.

The question that really lingers after watching “Vice” is a judgement of degree: just how evil was Dick Cheney? I commend McKay for not falling into the trap of making him seem too much like a looming, sociopathic villain. Of course, there are moments when this conclusion seems imminent, such as when Cheney is urging an invasion of Iraq or condoning torture, but he never completely deserts his humanity. Interestingly, for a staunch conservative, Cheney’s most morality-saving moment comes due to gay marriage. His daughter Mary comes out to her parents as a lesbian, and after a long pause Cheney embraces her and declares, “We will always love you no matter what.” Protecting Mary soon becomes an important aspect of Cheney’s political life, and he even forgoes an attempt at running for president because he knows that opponents will go after Mary to try to destroy Cheney’s reputation with conservatives. Later, when discussing issues with George W. Bush, Cheney asserts that he won’t make any appearances in support of Bush’s stance against gay marriage, proclaiming with conviction, “It’s my daughter, and that line is drawn in concrete.”

In the end, Cheney comes out as a complicated character who clearly messed with morality and whose political decisions caused harm and cost lives. But in the final shot before the credits roll, Cheney addresses the audience and delivers a shocking, Machiavellian manifesto about his job to protect the American people. “I can feel your recriminations and your judgement,” he growls, “and I will not apologize for doing what needed to be done so your loved ones can sleep peacefully at night.” It’s a final monologue full of solemn audacity and reluctant truth, and it leaves viewers with the clearest possible insight into Cheney’s motivations: he was doing what he believed needed to be done to keep America safe. Now it’s our turn to decide if he was right.