OP-ROB RATING: BENCH
“Vice” is a 2018 film directed by Adam McKay about the former Vice President Dick Cheney (played by Christian Bale). The film follows Cheney from his early years when he failed out of Yale and racked up two DWIs, all the way through his beginnings and maturation while working in the White House, his appointment as Secretary of Defense under President Gerald Ford, terms as a Congressman for Wyoming, and ultimate ascension to the Vice Presidency. Though much of the focus of “Vice” is on Cheney in his VP years, the film bounces back and forth between various periods of his life. Recurring characters include Cheney’s wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and a mysterious narrator named Kurt (Jesse Plemons) whose importance is revealed near the end of the movie. Other characters include a bevy of familiar faces associated with the Bush/Cheney White House, as well as Cheney’s two daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary (Alison Pill).
By far the strongest aspect of “Vice” is Christian Bale’s performance in the lead role as Dick Cheney. Beyond the sheer impressiveness of his physical transformation, which is on par with past weight fluctuations as seen in “The Machinist” and “American Hustle”, Bale’s acting just flows. Everything from his speech and mouth movements to his bulky stride is seamless. Sometimes major transformations can be distracting. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” comes to mind as a good example where even if the performance is genuine, something about the character feels a bit off. This is not the case with Bale’s Cheney, and his presence on screen is undeniable. Amy Adams also deserves immense credit for her portrayal of Cheney’s ambitious wife Lynne. McKay casts her as a sinister presence in “Vice”, as she cajoles Cheney to pursue more and more power. Steve Carell’s Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld pales in comparison to the former two performances, as he comes off as a cartoonish villain plastered with cosmetics. He looks unnatural, and acts unnaturally. The same can be said of Sam Rockwell, who portrays former President George W. Bush.
McKay depicts several characters as arrogant bureaucrats, constantly chuckling and conniving in a silly manner. It is understandable that “Vice” straddles the line between drama and comedy, in the same vein as McKay’s masterful 2015 film “The Big Short” about the 2007/2008 financial crisis. However, “Vice” treats many of its characters, George W. chief among them, with an air of mockery that “The Big Short” never came close to. There is a difference between humorous cut-aways, such as those with Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain explaining subprime mortgages in “The Big Short”, and then scenes such as Dick and Lynne’s bedside bantering with lines from Shakespeare’s Richard III in “Vice”. If the film were meant to be purely comedy, then turning characters into clowns would not be such a big deal. However, “Vice” strives to be something more, and the various gags throughout the film undermine the greater message.
Indeed, “Vice” is out to make statements on serious issues. McKay makes a compelling, and evidence-based argument for Cheney’s responsibility in getting America into the devastating invasion of Iraq following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Much of the film is dedicated to that narrative. While there is a step-by-step chronological leadup to the Iraq invasion, “Vice” fails to thoroughly explain exactly why Cheney wanted it to happen in the first place. There are snippets depicting general US oil interests and Cheney’s former role as CEO of Halliburton as possible motives. Yet, we never get an idea of anything beyond these selfish business related themes. “Vice” avoids the harder questions surrounding Cheney. Iraq War aside, McKay attributes everything from the 2008 housing bubble to the recent California wildfires to Cheney, without any concrete explanation, accusations that are just thrown in. People who follow the ins and outs of politics might know what McKay is getting at, but the average viewer certainly will not. “Vice” is a film dedicated to painting Dick Cheney as an evil mastermind responsible for an array of foreign and domestic disasters regarding the United States, but it fails to provide substantiation (or evidence) for its claims. Coupled with the mocking tone evident throughout the movie, everything in “Vice” must be taken with a grain of salt.
This problem relates to what I see as the fatal flaw in “Vice”. Just as we never understand Cheney’s motivations on a practical level, such as with the invasion of Iraq, we also never understand them on an ideological one. Why did Dick Cheney believe what he believed? Why was he a Republican? There is a scene early on in the film where a young Cheney serving as a White House intern earnestly asks Donald Rumsfeld, “What do we believe in?” Rummy laughs off the question, and the scene ends. This was a mistake, and shows McKay’s own lack of knowledge surrounding Dick Cheney’s personal ideology. There is no rhyme or reason as to why he does what he does in “Vice” beyond perhaps simple power mongering. And if so, then is Lynne more to blame than Dick? It is clear from the film that McKay strongly dislikes Dick Cheney as he goes to great lengths painting him as a heartless villain and in one scene even shows Cheney in surgery with his chest cavity stretched open, literally without a heart. However, by failing to delve deeply into Dick Cheney’s motivations, the film ultimately falls flat. Haters of the old conservative power players such as Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld will probably enjoy “Vice”. But unlike “The Big Short”, which hit on an intensely personal level, “Vice” plays out like an inside joke, pre-packaged for a select audience. Such blatant and shallow one-sidedness errs on the side of cheap propaganda, rather than thoughtful filmmaking.