When I heard that Adam McKay was following up his 2015 The Big Short with a biopic about Dick Cheney I thought it sort of made sense but also didn’t make sense at all. On one hand it was obvious from his last movie that McKay was transitioning from making broad comedies like Anchorman and Talladega Nights to making overtly political satires, so in some ways a Cheney movie seemed like a logical evolution of that, on the other hand who the hell wants to make or see a movie about the W. Bush administration in 2018? That seems like a bad idea firstly because those years were hell and no one wants to relive them, secondly because enough time probably hasn’t passed to really bring anything new to the story with hindsight, and thirdly because with Donald Trump in office a lot of the awfulness of the Bush years almost feels quaint by comparison. Truth be told, despite Bush’s slightly better tact and decorum than the current white house occupant, he was in fact pretty terrible and a lot of the worst aspects of modern Republican politics were very much alive when he was in white house as well and a reminder of that might be in order.
Vice does skip around in the timeline here and there but generally the film follows the life of Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his time as a hard drinking your adult in Wyoming to his time working with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) in the Nixon white house through to his time as a house representative and as a Halliburton executive until finally landing on the role that would make him infamous to history as the vice president to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Along the way we see him interacting with his wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) and daughters Mary Cheney (Alison Pill) and Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe).
Let’s start with what is clearly Vice’s strongest and most talked about element: Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role. Bale is a 44 year old Englishman who has very recently been in good enough shape to play Batman who is here playing a noticeably overweight American politician who was at his most famous between the ages of 59 and 67 and he has made is so that you don’t question this at all. Bale has clearly done one of his trademark absurd weight gains for the role and he’s presumably using a lot of makeup but there is clearly a skill in managing to bring everything together and making these transformative elements still feel human. Obviously Cheney isn’t the most emotional of characters, especially not in this telling of his life, so you don’t exactly get to see Bale doing any real “Oscar clip” scenes but he does adopt the voice pretty effectively and is generally quite good in the role beyond the obvious physical transformation.
The downside of this is that Bale going above and beyond the call of duty as much as he does kind of makes some of his co-stars look bad in comparison. In particular I’m thinking of Steve Carrell, who certainly manages to make himself look reasonably like a young Donald Rumsfeld, but who seems completely incapable of changing the sound of his voice for this or any other role. That seems particularly odd in this role given that Rumsfeld, Mr. unknonwn knowns, is probably most famous for using language to slink out of accountability and just generally feels like should be more complicated than what we see here. Also probably more complicated than what we see here is the real George W. Bush, who Sam Rockwell depicts as being not just an easily manipulated personality but as someone who borders on being “special needs.” You don’t really see a lot of Bush in the movie, which is partly by design given that the film is very much of the belief that Cheney was calling the shots through that whole administration, but when he is on screen Rockwell’s performance rarely rises above the level of SNL impression. Amy Adams fares better as Lynne Cheney, in part because she isn’t burdened with doing an impression of an overly familiar face, but the movie doesn’t give her a ton to do either, it’s basically a typical “long suffering biopic wife” role with some kind of contradictory hints that she might be a sort of Lady MacBeth behind his rise.
The film’s view of Dick Cheney will be familiar to anyone who lived through the Bush years. Back then the theory was always that Cheney was the real brains behind Bush and that he was driving events largely out of greed for oil and in service of Haliburton and other oil contractors. Given my political leanings I don’t necessarily doubt this narrative but I’ve always assumed it was basically unproven speculation and simply reenacting it in a movie like this doesn’t exactly seem like confirmation. I might have preferred a documentary that goes into the records and really tried to prove what it going on here. Instead what we get is something more along the lines of The Big Short: a fourth wall breaking satire which finds amusing ways to lay out political facts that uneducated viewers might not be aware of. That approach worked well in The Big Short, in part because the financial system is legitimately complicated and it felt less condescending when really simplified metaphors are offered for it and partly because that raucous tone generally fit that story a bit better. That was a movie about a class of people so drunk off of profits that they refused to see that they were heading for disaster, so all the irreverence kind of fit the mood. Vice tries to do the same but doesn’t realize that it’s kind of telling the opposite story, that of a master manipulator who was very much seeing the big picture and was allegedly in control the whole time.
As it’s been released Vice has become one of the year’s most divisive films. Some people really seem to hate it, in part because its satiric tone can come off as glib, and I agree with that to some extent. There are also just a lot of really little things in the movie that bug me like how it just sort of skips past what got Cheney into politics in the first place with a cut forward in time and I also hated a monolog delivered by Cheney towards the end which might have seemed interestingly provocative in another movie but which made no sense in the movie its attached to which overly contradicts everything that he’s saying. I also just flat out didn’t find the movie particularly funny despite sort of admiring some of the audacity on display. Certain parts of the movie do work, which combined with how interesting Bale’s performances was keep me from really hating the movie as much as some people do. That said, I do think that by and large the movie is something of a failure.
** out of Five