“What do we actually believe in?”
Agreed-upon lies laid the foundation for most of the United States’ history as a nation. One of the biggest lies, according to Adam McKay’s new film, is that Dick Cheney was ever just vice president. Too often, society is enamored by behavior that isn’t good for it. The shoot from the hip, easygoing (albeit clumsy) charm of George W. Bush’s administration hid the nefarious dealings that went on behind closed doors. In doing so, Americans were surreptitiously trojan-horsed a Cheney presidency through the election of George W. Bush. The move was a clever gambit and one that brought about the current ideological stance we face now as a country. Unfortunately for Adam McKay, he has to pitch the merger of corporatism and Christian-conservatives as a comedy. The sardonic wit behind The Big Short uses the template from that film again here to diminishing returns. Making audiences eat their vegetables regarding toxic asset leverages is one thing, underlining the highly dubious abuses of power that took place for eight years in the highest office of the land is a bit much to stomach.
McKay’s anger at the events enacted by Dick Cheney is warranted; if the thousands of death as the result of the Iraq War isn’t sufficient enough reason to get your blood boiling, one might question what will. But once the finger gets pointed at the audience for not caring enough about the consequences of events decades ago, Adam McKay starts losing them. For McKay’s indignation to be credible, he’d have to avoid some of his own toothless critiques later in the film. The director starts off hot, going right after Cheney for his conduct in the hours after 9/11 when the towers fell. With George W. Bush in the air, Cheney authorizes the rules for enemy engagement despite having every other person in the room wondering what the hell he’s doing. Several points in Vice make no bones about the grift that financially profited both Dick and Lynne. Though that same righteous fury invites questions later on when the film heads toward a very satisfactory conclusion only to tack on another ending (yes, there are multiple) that completely unravels the momentum that Vice had. It may be a token effort at impartiality, though anyone expecting such from an Adam McKay production is a fool. Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe) using Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation as a weapon to avoid her own liabilities to her father’s dismay may prove he has a heart, but he created the rules of the game that allowed for his daughter’s heartbreak.
For that last scene to have any impact on the audience, Christian Bale has to be zeroed-in on the human behind the satirical target. Christian Bale’s transformation into Dick Cheney is remarkable, and if he were any other actor, he’d likely receive a lot of recognition for the part. However, this is one of four or five physical transformations that Bale has already pulled off to great acclaim, so critics are less enthralled. Bale does for Dick Cheney what George C. Scott did for Patton, for better and for worse. For those less in the know, Cheney wasn’t always a master strategist, he was a drunk layabout who eventually took over the White House, but not without significant assistance from Lynne Cheney.
Amy Adams won’t be the main focus of any tv spots as Lynne Cheney, but her frighteningly earnest portrayal is chilling. One could argue that Dick doesn’t necessarily believe half of what he sells, but Lynne is baptized in the waters of her actions. Without Adams as the Lady to Bale’s Macbeth, the film would be significantly worse. No less vital are Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, as Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, they are workhorses for most of the film’s comic relief. Both men add flair as over-the-top lackeys that wouldn’t feel out of place in Talladega Nights or Anchorman.
The film still needs at least one more run in the editing booth. Not that that’s a knock on the editing in general; Vice‘s biggest saving grace is the work by Hank Corwin. Corwin’s kinetic sense of pacing is the film’s driving force, assisting McKay in interweaving informational exchanges into narratives. What causes Vice to stumble constructionally are the needless tricks that add up over the course of the film. Sometimes you have to “kill your babies” as a writer. As engaging as Amy Adams and Christian Bale are as the Cheneys, having them reenact Dick’s decision to be V.P. in Shakespearean prose could be cut forthright and nothing would be lost from the film. Satirical touches are to be expected–such as McKay offering a happier ending of Cheney’s story where he and Lynne retire from public life to raise golden retrievers– but these kind of excesses are not to be excused.
At times simplistic, and others bludgeoning in subtlety, Vice is more or less exactly the film that you’d think Adam McKay would make about Dick Cheney. But McKay does an admirable job eschewing the tropes of most biopics. And, if nothing else, Bale and Adams must be seen as Dick and Lynne Cheney. They’re phenomenal.