In case anyone is unsure prior to that moment, in its final minutes, writer/director Adam McKay’s “Vice” lays the problems of today’s world squarely at Dick Cheney’s feet. The preceding two hours aren’t incredibly kind to the man, but the summation pulls no punches. The movie is brilliant, however, in part because over the course of those two hours it methodically and cleverly builds its argument. When the summation comes, it does not come out of nowhere.
An almost wholly unrecognizable Christian Bale plays the former Vice President over the course of 50 years, and it is an incredible performance. We see Cheney go from a ne’er-do-well to George W. Bush’s Vice President and, arguably, more powerful than the man for whom he was working. In fact, “Vice” does make that exact argument and offers an explanation as to how Cheney made that happen.
It would be incorrect to suggest that McKay sets up Cheney as a Machiavellian schemer, he is in fact much more of a Macbeth, with Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) as his Lady Macbeth. It is she who pushes Cheney to go from a nothing to someone important, someone with power. There is even a bit of Shakespearian dialogue tossed in at one point to further the notion.
In an otherwise excellent movie, this iteration of Lynne Cheney is a great disappointment. Adams is utterly convincing in the role, but the scheming, manipulative nature of the character feels overly simplified and far too stereotypical.
This is not just a movie which takes the viewer inside the life of Dick Cheney, it is a movie which pivots from humor to horror on a dime. It plays some serious issues for laughs and others in a completely straight manner, and, even better, each of these sequences works separately and together. That is, that which is played to be funny is funny and that which is meant to be dramatic is dramatic and it all works when combined into the larger movie.
While the movie shows many of the Cheney’s faults and some of his more duplicitous actions, it also beautifully sets up his love for his family and his unwillingness, for a long time, to allow any attacks on his daughter, Mary (Alison Pill), due to her sexual orientation. It is quite heartwarming to watch as Cheney, more than once, makes it clear that he won’t go down that path. It even offers an explanation for why his other daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), does travel that road later.
Perhaps the best single way to view the movie is as one of those posters of a individual where the full image is made up of a series of smaller images of the same person. It is, conceptually, something like an Impressionist painting – standing back one sees the full picture, but up close all one has are the bits of paint, or the smaller images, and no matter how different they all look individually, it comes together to make a single, beautiful, whole.
So, in “Vice” we get moments of incredible humor and others of terrible darkness. We get the aforementioned Shakespearian dialogue, a false credits sequence, a mysterious narrator in the form of Jesse Plemons, and so much more. But, it all works to fashion a single, larger, picture.
It must also be said that the cast is wonderful. In addition to those above, it includes the likes of Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell. Each is perfect in their own way, particularly Carell’s Rumsfeld. This is the man who brought Cheney into the circles of power, and who taught him how to organize the world for his own advantage.
Cheney certainly did that, and when the movie takes on 9/11, it shows exactly how the Vice President put himself at the center of our nation’s response. One does not wish to bandy about the phrase “coup d’etat,” but what “Vice” shows of that day definitely feels like one. It is Cheney who runs the response; Cheney who authorizes the military to shoot down aircraft; Cheney who commands all as he has the President’s plane to remain aloft.
It is chilling to watch unfold, and McKay returns to 9/11 more than once in the movie. First, he draws the audience into the film with it, and later he shows how all of Cheney’s earlier machinations made his work that day possible. Cheney’s scheming is shown to be masterful; McKay’s craft is equally so; and Bale, who is completely hidden inside the character, is mesmerizing.
“Vice” is more than a first-rate look at this man and all that he wrought, it is a story that is cleverly told, well aware of its potential biases, and completely captivating. Its one misstep is with its emotional but stereotypical presentation of Lynne Cheney. Adams does what she can with the role, but the movie is better when the character is off to the side.
photo credit: Annapurna Pictures
Frankly, I found the film insulting in its simple-minded propagandistic presentation of a complex person and complex situations. These were interesting and controversial times one needs to know a lot more about, but what we get here is just a one-sided and occasionally dishonest and misleading story. The film is transparently manipulative and often treats the viewers as idiots. The tragedy is that opinions about important public figures and historical events are now so polarised that reasoned discourse seems to be impossible. This film does a huge disservice to the cause of rational debate in a democracy.
I think by being so transparent, by going so far as to come out and directly say it isn’t coming at it from the middle of the road, it loses its manipulative powers.