Movie Review: Vice
By Matthew Huntley
January 7, 2019
Hospital technician: “Dick Cheney—great American.”
Director Adam McKay: “Well, it’s complicated."
This exchange took place as McKay was having a stent put in after suffering a heart attack. It was during the production of McKay’s “Vice,” and just like the subject of his film—former Vice President Dick Cheney—McKay essentially knew when his heart attack was coming. He couldn’t catch his breath and he felt queasy in his stomach. Dick Cheney felt this way often enough that he could give his family and staff members ample heads up that another attack was coming. “Better get the car ready,” he’d say.
It’s a shame “Vice” itself isn’t as amusing or interesting as this ironic anecdote, because I’ve no doubt Cheney is indeed a complicated man (what human isn’t?), and any attempt to make a biopic about him would surely be a challenging yet exciting feat for any filmmaker. In fact, McKay’s film opens with the subtitle, “The following is based on a true story. Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in history. We did our f*ing best.”
Unfortunately, McKay’s best isn’t good enough, at least not here. He’s certainly a gifted storyteller, and there are moments in “Vice” when you think it will break out of its shell and have the audacity to transform into something other than a typical “political figure biopic.” But such moments are short-lived and the movie spends most of its time being a mere manifestation of the thoughts and opinions of the liberal choir to whom McKay and his team are obviously preaching. Yes, there are some interesting tidbits peppered throughout and we leave the theater feeling as though we learned a few new things about the enigmatic Cheney, but it ultimately doesn’t challenge or really play with what we already thought about him going in.
This is disappointing news to report, especially given the caliber of talent in front of and behind the camera. Christian Bale, who was so memorable in McKay’s semi-overlooked (and much more compelling) “The Big Short,” is almost unrecognizable and uncanny in the way he looks, speaks and carries himself like the real Dick Cheney. He certainly did his homework in terms of getting Cheney’s posture, mannerisms and body language down, and the film’s makeup team must also be applauded for making it seem like Cheney volunteered to play himself on-screen.
It’s an impressive and convincing physical recreation to be sure, but while it’s one thing to nail the look of a man, it’s another, more important thing to reveal the heart of him and expose his inner soul and motivations, and McKay’s screenplay and storytelling strategies don’t quite get the job done.
That’s not to say the film lacks good intentions or that it doesn’t have an interesting agenda, which are to shed some light on just how the towering, mysterious Cheney, through sheer determination, calculated conversations, and sometimes the sacrificing of his own family and health, was able to wield his command to make the office of the Vice President of the United States more than just a thankless, symbolic job. It also wants to show just how far-reaching the ramifications of Cheney’s decisions were and continue to be, which many viewers, including myself, might have never considered.
But if the intentions of “Vice” are bold and ambitious, the means by which it carries them out are conventional by comparison. Sure, the film has a definitive attitude and dark sense of humor throughout, but overall it adheres too rigidly to the traditional biopic structure. This makes it frustrating to watch because there are a few inspired scenes that go against the grain and make us believe the film will stray from its typical path and really mold itself into something special. These moments excite us and catch us off guard, but they’re also transitory, and when the film comes back down to Earth, we feel let down by its unrealized possibilities.
Appropriately, the vision I have for the way “Vice” operates is the same way a young Dick Cheney drives drunk in 1963, swerving off and on a country road in Wyoming, where he and his high school sweetheart, and future wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), grew up. Lynne makes it clear to Dick she’ll leave him if she has to bail him out of jail a third time for drunkenness (this is after he got kicked out of Yale), and this scares Dick straight. By 1969 he’s no longer swerving off the road but instead working as intern at the White House during the Nixon administration, reporting to none other than Chief of Staff Donald Rumsfeld (an over-the-top Steve Carrell, who makes Rumsfeld too much of a caricature).
From this point on, “Vice” more or less continues on a straight path not unlike the one Cheney set himself on, going through the standard biopic motions of summarizing the major events and positions he held during his 40-year political and private-sector careers. An unnamed narrator (Jesse Plemons), a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, gives us the play by play as Cheney gets his own stint as Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford (Bill Camp); serves as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush (John Hillner), who made him a key overseer of Operation Desert Storm; becomes Chairman and CEO of Halliburton, the oft-ill-though-of oil company; and eventually Vice President to George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell).
The film purports this last position only happened because Cheney demanded certain provisos be in order that would essentially make him the puppet master of the second Bush administration, virtually without any oversight, which he surreptitiously fine-tuned with the help of his legal counsel David Addington (Don McManus) and Chief of Staff Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk), not to mention the loosely defined unitary executive theory.
All of these are sequences are inherently interesting, I suppose, and they’re presented and performed serviceably, but I wanted “Vice” to keep swerving off the road like Cheney did back in his youth, because the few times it does, it shows some real potential as a risky, compelling dramedy instead of just an adequate biography.
Take, for instance, a moment about a third of the way through, when the movie pretends to be over. The credits roll and everything, and the film gives us the false hope Cheney’s career ended after George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 presidential election to Bill Clinton. We figure the film might hit a stride and break in its ways to become more inventive and experimental with its presentation. The same goes for a scene featuring Alfred Molina as a waiter in an upscale D.C. restaurant, where Cheney and his cohorts order devious compromises of the U.S. Constitution off the menu without thinking twice about them (“We’ll have one of everything.”). There’s also a bizarre exchange between Dick and Lynne as they lay in bed and suddenly speak like two characters in a Shakespeare drama plotting something sinister.
But these moments prove to be just temporary gags before the film returns to its more familiar territory and continues as a straightforward account of the major headlines and left-wing conspiracy theories surrounding Cheney, including his viewing the 9/11 attacks as an “opportunity” to seize control of Iraq, which he jumpstarted by claiming Saddam Hussein had links to Al-Qaeda and possessed weapons of mass destruction; or deliberately leaking Valerie Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA agent because her journalist husband, Joseph C. Wilson, wrote an op-ed piece stating his doubts that Iraq purchased uranium from Niger; and Cheney accidentally shooting Harry Whittington on a hunting trip. If you watched the news at all during Cheney’s time in office, these events will simply ring in your head as, “Oh yeah, I remember that.”
By the end, “Vice” suggests that just about every major domestic, international, humanity crisis, social injustice, etc. issue we face today is linked, in some way, shape or form, to Cheney’s past decisions and policies, from the rise of ISIS to the deaths of fleeing refugees. And while I don’t deny his choices played some key role in their existence, the way the film presents them makes it feel scrambled and jarring. Our impression is that McKay has allowed himself to get carried away with his mission to expose this guy for who he is and is trying to cram everything in just so he can get his liberal point across, as if this was his only shot to do so. But this overeager strategy dilutes the film’s effect and it loses focus. At the same time, we lose interest.
What’s interesting is that Bale has said he wanted to find the humanity in Cheney, to get away from the idea that he’s “all villain,” and that even abhorrent people like him can still make wonderful company. But the film doesn’t take that approach. Instead, it leans completely to the left, which is a shame, because a neutral position would have made Cheney a more interesting filmic character and demystified him as a looming political figure. And while do see some of his humanity, as when he tells his youngest daughter, Mary (Allison Pill), that “We will accept you no matter what,” when she tells him and Lynne she’s a lesbian, the film makes it a point to show he went back on this promise when his eldest daughter, Liz (Lily Rabe), made a bid for Wyoming senator and refuses to support same-sex marriage. I realize this really happened, but the film’s biased position comes across too heavily and doesn’t allow enough time to show or even suggest that perhaps Cheney really struggled with his decisions. It doesn’t entertain the possibility that he wasn’t always so hasty and impulsive just to maintain power. Its strict point of view limits our engagement with the material.
For me, “Vice” ultimately accomplished too little in its attempt to tell me something new about Dick Cheney that I didn’t already assume, and I’ve a feeling most viewers of my liberal persuasion will feel the same way, while those on the other end of the spectrum will see it as just another attack from the left. This makes us wonder what the value of the film is and has us asking, why see it? Despite McKay and his cast’s valiant efforts, I can’t provide a good answer. Oddly enough, after reading Cheney’s autobiography, McKay thought to himself, “This is a guy who has really done everything he can to not have a movie made about him.” Perhaps he should have heeded that thought more and moved on to another project.