Synopsis: The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.
Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Alison Pill
Director: Adam McKay
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: In 2015, writer-director Adam McKay made the rare successful transition from helming absurd comedies to becoming an Oscar winner for his work on The Big Short. Whereas he was previously known for college dorm room friendly movies like Anchorman and it’s sequel, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers he was now responsible for a movie that the parents of his fans were buzzing about. The movie that resulted from The Big Short was a fairly remarkable achievement given how complex the novel by Michael Lewis was and McKay justifiably shouldered much of the plaudits. With that kind of clout, not to mention the big box office his comedies had already made, McKay was given a wide berth for his next movie and the super-charged political Vice is the result of an artist that has tried to use all of his bag of tricks to much less success.
Charting the rise to power of Dick Cheney from college dropout all the way to the Vice Presidency under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Vice is a peculiar film that suffers under McKay’s employment of a similar set of structural devices he used in his previous films. There’s a lot of jumping around in time, numerous lines delivered directly to the audience, and multiple times where the action stops so a familiar face can break down to viewers what exactly is going on or give a greater description to a political term that may be foreign to audiences. With The Big Short and it’s heavy use of Wall Street lingo, these asides proved helpful but in Vice they feel like a hindrance to the narrative thrust of the piece. I feel like Americans are much more savvy to politics so it has the effect of being talked down to rather than it being explanatory.
Vice has a lot of ground to cover and even in 132 minutes it rarely dives below the surface to give us a view into the lives of the former VP. We simply go through the motions seeing Cheney (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises) as a younger (thinner, less bald) man, a bit of a loser until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, Her) threatens to leave him unless he changes his act. Entering Washington politics as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) under Nixon and Ford before being ousted by a regime change when Carter was elected President, Cheney had his hand in multiple power plays along the way where he skillfully positioned himself while playing the long game.
The first hour of the film focuses on these early years while the last half is all about the Bush years when Cheney agreed to serve as the Vice President for the son of the former president. Recognizing him as unqualified and easily manipulated, Cheney seized this opportunity to request more power and responsibility, which Bush handed over to Cheney and his cronies without much incident. Essentially, Cheney was running the show with Bush the real figurehead that was controlled by his second in command. With the attacks on 9/11, Cheney saw an opportunity to strike back at enemies and helped set into motion a war many of the issues we still face today generated from. For anyone that has read a book about this political age in our country, these won’t be revelatory facts but it’s not any less frustrating to see how many of our current problems could have been avoided had the election that put Bush/Cheney into office been criminally investigated as many now agree it should have been.
Much of the hype surrounding Vice has been Bale’s performance as Cheney and I have to say the actor looks and sounds remarkably like the man. Bale is known to be an actor that dives headfirst into his roles, both mentally and physically and the transformation here is commendable. Still, this felt like an impression not a performance and nothing I saw on screen revealed to me anything about Cheney from an emotional perspective only from Bale’s impression of the man. That could easily be a choice since Cheney is notoriously a hard person to pin down but I think there’s something more that could be done apart from the physical alteration he made for the role.
I’m not sure if I had an issue with Adams and her performance as Lynne Cheney or if I just didn’t like Lynne Cheney and that made me respond in kind to what Adams was doing. In McKay’s eyes, Lynne was a Lady Macbeth for the 20th century, pushing her husband into this life and often encouraging him into his most trying periods of power. The parallels are further drawn in an admittedly amusing scene where McKay has Lynne and Dick speaking in Shakespearan verse when discussing Dick’s consideration of taking the Vice Presidential nomination. Adams is always a reliable presence and she and Bale have a good chemistry, perhaps they just were too believable as evil people.
McKay clearly knows how to attract a name cast. Aside from Carell’s hammy take on Rumsfeld and Rockwell’s good ole boy ease as the younger Bush, there are nice cameos from Jesse Plemons (Game Night) as a fictional character that serves as a narrator who becomes an important piece later in the film and Tyler Perry (Alex Cross) as a morally conflicted Colin Powell. Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) and Lily Rabe (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have some nice scenes as the Cheney daughters, and a special shout-out to LisaGay Hamilton (Beautiful Boy) for her spot-on Condoleezza Rice.
What’s missing from the movie are the moments between these big political benchmarks. Skipping around in time (and over the Clinton administration all together) feels like McKay is cherry picking the passages he wants to highlight and that doesn’t feel fair enough in presenting an accurate picture of what was happening in the world that could have influenced Cheney in his later years. I could easily have seen this being a Netflix series that stretched eight hours and being perfectly content to spend that extra time with these rather morally bankrupt people. What’s not missing from the movie? Symbolism. McKay is a fan of making everything Symbolic with a capital S with many fishing/lures interstitials cut into scenes when Cheney is trying to hook another unsuspecting simp into his power plays. At first it’s creative, then it becomes cloying. Let’s also not speak of a dreadful mid-credit scene that Annapurna Pictures should immediately remove from all prints — totally unnecessary and weakens McKay’s argument up until that point.
There was little doubt before the release of Vice that former Vice President Dick Cheney was already considered one of the greatest villains our country but under McKay’s watchful eye he’s now become one of the screen’s most diabolical forces. Vice is one of the most outwardly liberal movies to come out of a major Hollywood studio and in a way that’s refreshing because there’s no hidden agenda. I just wish McKay’s message was delivered in a better envelope.