There are few figures in modern American political history who have proven more disliked than George W. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney. Even amid our present highly divided times, there are plenty of people still cheering President Trump passionately onward at his rallies — but Cheney attained an almost unique level of disdain from the public and fear from those who had to deal with him in the corridors of power.
The new film “Vice” tries to make sense of his life and career, and to do so in an entertaining way rather than via a dry historical biopic. The elements are there to make this a truly special movie, with Christian Bale packing on pounds and the right level of makeup to literally immerse himself in the role of Cheney, and Amy Adams even more stunning in her complete ability to look like Cheney’s powerful wife, Lynne.
Add in Steve Carell playing Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as a hard-charging, profane doofus and Sam Rockwell playing W himself as a jovial redneck who allowed Cheney to pull the strings, and you’ve got a cast loaded with Oscar nominees and winners. With Adam McKay co-writing and taking the helm after winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for his prior film “The Big Short,” which made the impossibly complex details of the 2008 US housing crisis relatable, “Vice” might seem like another zeitgeist-hitting, can’t-miss proposition.
Sadly, however, it misses the mark in some ways. Full disclosure: I’m generally a Republican, but have utter contempt for the records of both Bush presidents and even less respect for Cheney. I’ll spare everyone the details of why because basically I hated everything they ever “accomplished” in office.
That said, a film that utilizes Oscar-caliber talent should at least make an attempt to portray its events with accuracy. The film opens with a written statement admitting that Cheney is one of the most private political figures in the modern era, but that the filmmakers tried their “f—ing best” to tell his story.
Such immediate flippancy and its admission that they didn’t manage to get large swaths of Dick Cheney’s life vetted fully reveals that this is way too much of a stacked deck. The fact that Cheney had a 13 percent approval rating when he left office in 2009 should indicate that there was plenty of verifiable life stories to work with in bashing the guy.
The movie opens with a depiction of Cheney as a hell-raising heavy drinker who was kicked out of Yale for partying more than studying. After his second DUI arrest, his wife Lynne demands that he get sober and focused and make something of himself, and it’s a challenge he takes to heart.
He’s next seen as a member of a House internship program in Washington, DC where he sees Rumsfeld as a young and brash congressman and decides he’ll hitch himself to his wagon on the road to success. Cheney is depicted as a blank slate here, a man driven by power more than principle. While that might seem logical considering the craven way he pushed for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars while profiting from his role in the defense contractor Halliburton, he has long and widely been considered a highly passionate ideologue in reality.
Much of the film plays like a “greatest hits” (or rather, worst moments) version of Cheney’s career, showing how he rose to become the most power-mongering vice president in history. the power level that led George W. Bush to ask him to select his vice president and then put himself in the position. McKay uses a lot of inventive techniques to keep it funny and engaging, even pretending to roll the end credits halfway through the film when a rare moment of decency from Cheney might have afforded a happy ending in a more conventionally made film.
But when McKay throws in a completely shocking surprise about the film’s narrator, it might play funny for that moment but stops the movie cold and makes viewers realize once again that this is a highly subjective pastiche of agitprop rather than a remotely fair depiction of a very flawed man. When he adds a grim montage of terrible moments from the Obama and Trump tenures that followed Cheney’s time in office, implying that his terrible track record from 2001 to 2009 is at fault for what two completely different subsequent administrations had done, the pile-on becomes ridiculous.
But if you are a politics junkie like me, this is the only game in town right now for a smart satire and definitely entertaining. If you’re not really into politics, this isn’t a must-see and you’ll probably enjoy any number of other films out now.
Looking at this and McKay’s slate of upcoming projects, it appears that the guy who used to focus on giving America big laughs in the “Anchorman” movies, “Talladega Nights,” “Step Brothers” and “The Other Guys” has fallen victim to the all-too-frequent and sad internal call of comedic auteurs to Say Something Important. He would do well to check out Preston Sturges’ classic “Sullivan’s Travels” and get back to making America laugh again.