A Virtuous (and Entertaining) “Vice”

A Virtuous (and Entertaining) “Vice” December 23, 2018
Christian Bale, as Dick Cheney, in “Vice”

Vice has few virtues.”  I chuckled inwardly when I read this headline over some Wall Street Journal commentary on writer/director Adam McKay’s takedown of Dick Cheney.

However, I would’ve expected no less from a publication owned by Rupert Murdoch.  After all, with Fox News in particular, Murdoch has benefited more than anyone from the Cheney-abetted dismantling of the fairness doctrine, the FCC policy that required news outlets to offer balanced presentations of controversial issues.  And who but fat cat readers of the Wall Street Journal profited most from Cheney and Dubya’s military adventurism in the Middle East, their deregulation and denial of global warming, and their tax breaks for the uber-rich?

For the rest of us, Vice is an excellent lesson in recent history that goes down easily.  In highly entertaining fashion, McKay kills any nostalgia for Cheney and Dubya, for anyone tempted to remember them rosily in the face of the idiot currently poop-tweeting in the White House.

Vice spends about half of its run time on Cheney’s vice presidency, rightly so, considering that he was the power behind the throne.  Before that, we witness his rise, with his tough-as-nails wife Lynne as the power behind the power behind the throne.

The film’s lengthy prologue opens in 1963 with Dick as an alcoholic Wyoming lineman, back home after flunking out of Yale.  His then-girlfriend Lynne sits him down after his second DUI, delivering an ultimatum that it’s her or the bottle.

Fast forward five years, and Dick is a congressional intern for Donald Rumsfeld.  Under Rummy’s mentorship, they both cross town to serve in the Nixon and Ford White Houses.  During Ford’s brief tenure, Dick becomes the youngest chief of staff in American history.

All of this is framed with great verve and (mostly dark) humor.  McKay intersperses his political drama with news footage from the eras in question.  He occasionally freezes the action to allow narration by an everyman named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), whose connections to Dick are only apparent near the film’s end.  And as he did with The Big Short, his reenactment of the 2008 financial crisis, he also pauses the action now and again to explain heady concepts like unitary executive theory and the estate tax.

McKay’s comedic chops – as former SNL writer turned director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights – are most evident in Steve Carell’s over-the-top portrayal of Rummy, shamelessly exuberant in his power lust, laughing uproariously when Dick asks him what they believe in.  But other audacious choices – a false ending here, some Shakespearean dialogue there – had me laughing out loud.

Steve Carell, as Donald Rumsfeld, in “Vice”

At the same time, Vice doesn’t shy away from the amorality and cockups of the Republican administrations that Cheney served, then presided over.  McKay’s script charges that Cheney was gunning for Iraq from day one of Dubya’s administration, all the better to divide the country among various oil companies.  Brief footage of charred corpses in Iraq and torture at Abu Ghraib reminds us of the half million Iraqi dead and the consequences of the Cheney-endorsed “torture memo,” as they all the while ignored the rise of ISIS.

McKay balances Dick’s time in the halls of power with scenes of domestic life with Lynne and their daughters Liz and Mary.  Surprisingly, Dick is shown as the affectionate and playful parent, while Lynne is intolerant of any silliness in the rearing of their daughters.  However, even Dick’s fathering is ultimately shorn of kindness, as his private support of Mary’s lesbian sexual orientation is overshadowed by his public opposition to gay marriage.

The performances at the center of Vice are something to behold.  Amy Adams delivers a complex portrait of Lynne Cheney.  An early flashback hints at her overcoming a traumatic upbringing, with her love and devotion to her husband jockeying with steely ambition.

Amy Adams, with Christian Bale, in “Vice”

Sam Rockwell is capable of dominating the screen, as seen in films like The Way Way Back and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.  By contrast, his portrayal of Dubya is no doubt intentionally of a man shallow and inconsequential.

As mentioned earlier, Steve Carell is a blast to watch as Donald Rumsfeld, the mentor turned subordinate to Cheney.  Carell is visually transformed into a near-lookalike to Rummy, in particular nailing his toothy grin, even if the voice is still clearly his own.

But just as the title implies, the show belongs to Dick Cheney, and Christian Bale commits fully to the challenge of playing him.  Bale is famous for throwing himself incautiously into roles like POW Dieter Dengler (Rescue Dawn) or an unhinged blue collar man (The Machinist), and here he’s arguably at his best.  Unlike his near-starvation weight loss for those two roles, Bale put on more than 40 pounds to resemble the pear-shaped Cheney.

The makeup is even more impressive:  there were one or two times when I wasn’t sure at first if I was watching Bale or news footage of the real Cheney.  Bale perfectly mimics Cheney’s smirk and crooked closed-mouth smile, his gravelly monotone.  In his depiction, it often seems there’s nothing under the surface of Cheney’s workaholic distracted dad and his quest for power.  Then again, that’s most everything we know of this taciturn, secretive man.

Vice is naturally being labelled as unfairly partisan by the right wing media, with the hacks at The National Review oh-so-tactfully calling it “a spastic mess.”  However, McKay prides himself on the research that went into his screenplay, thanking the journalists who made his movie possible.  Indeed, his film pointedly calls out those who privilege partisan opinions over objective reality, and those like Cheney who mask their abhorrent policies behind neutered terminology.

Some may also find McKay’s metaphorical choices heavy-handed, and frankly, I’m on the fence about this one.  Cheney’s love of fishing is decently symbolic of his patient yet predatory political tactics.  More forceful still is McKay’s use of Cheney’s longtime heart trouble as a stand-in for the moral disease at his core.

My main criticism of Vice is that its pacing is too frantic, its data and historical detail overwhelming.  The Big Short suffered from the same flaw, with both films demanding a couple of viewings to absorb it all.  Nonetheless, it’s more effective than many a recent current events documentary, including Michael Moore’s latest and the crazily jam-packed Active Measures.  As a jeremiad lamenting the present state of American politics, Vice is near the top.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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