We’ve learned that writer/director Adam McKay has a knack for presenting dry topics in a non-confusing way and making them enjoyable. He did so with 2015’s The Big Short, and last year’s Vice starts out that way too.
Vice is about Dick Cheney’s rise to power from a lowly college dropout to becoming perhaps the most powerful Vice Presidents in America’s history. McKay offers the boring political details like an easy-to-understand Powerpoint presentation, and utilizes voiceover perfectly to help the audience understand things better. But then he ramps up the pace near the end of the second act while simultaneously slowing down the exposition and he starts to lose us. When a movie’s foundation is rooted in how it presents the details of a story, the easier it unravels when that disappears. Trust falling with nobody behind it.
To McKay’s credit, telling this story is ambitious. There’s a lot going on with countless moving parts to the story. The narrative sort of jumps around, yet clings to one time period when necessary, making the character development more rewarding, but also jarring at times.
We start off in 1963 with Cheney (Christian Bale) having dropped out of Yale and struggling with alcoholism. His wife, Lynne, gives him an ultimatum. She wants him to clean up or get out. He choses her. Lynne Cheney, played by Amy Adams, is the driving force behind Dick. She shows him how to take charge and at times encourages him to be ruthless.
Bale in the title role furthers the argument of him being the most chameleon actor of our generation. You don’t even think about the man behind the makeup. You literally see Dick Cheney and no one else. Enough so to make the movie very entertaining. And perfect emulation aside, his character transformation over the course of the film is what seals the deal. Early on, the movie ropes us in to like him and empathize with his character
Then we see Cheney eventually realize that being in politics isn’t about policies or beliefs, but power for power’s sake. And winning–we can’t forget about winning. Though this is all presented as more complex than that. We also see the Vice President sidestepping or seemingly convince himself that he’s doing things for the greater good of our country rather than personal gain. Those things can’t be rooted in facts like this movie claims they are.
Along the way, Cheney becomes cohorts with eventual Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who both teaches Dick how to be ruthless and finds himself being stepped on while Cheney ascends upwards. Carell is perfect for the role. He acts slimy and pompous, channeling his innermost Michael Scott.
To his surprise, Cheney is eventually asked by George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate for the 2000 presidential election. Dick is hesitant, as he’s always said that the Vice President is a “nothing” job. But he sees Bush’s naivety as an opportunity. He creates, with Bush, a verbal agreement that he is to handle all responsibilities of energy and foreign policy. The rest is history.
The story eventually makes its way to the terrorist attacks on September 11th and how Cheney had the handle on the response. There are a lot of aspects of Cheney’s life which make us question whether or not this is an interesting biography to tell to begin with. Sure, the details relating to 9/11 and the War in Iraq are important, but there’s not enough weight placed on them. Or I should say, there’s an equal amount of weight put on the war as there is on the more innocuous plot points–to where it seems like the former is nearly being glossed over or rushed.
The best character studies are those about complex people. And Dick Cheney is definitely complex. But it seems as though this movie isn’t sure whether or not it wants him to be. Vice is still speaking to a divided audience. A film about a bunch of conservatives made by a bunch of liberals is bound to make waves. Though the film attempts (and claims) to present facts without any bias, yet still inserts them here and there for subliminal purposes. Saying a lot without really saying anything, inviting us to read between the lines. The only problem is, those lines are pretty blurry. I guess it’s not as easy to remain unbiased as they think.
Originally published on January 23, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/vice-2018/