Satirical biopic plays (dirty) politics
Directed by Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell
Politics in America are at a point at which we have basically two options: We can sink into a swamp of suicidal despair, or we can laugh ourselves stupid at the whole soul-crushing situation. Writer-director Adam McKay has certainly chosen his side. The former head writer of “Saturday Night Live” and the man behind Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and The Other Guys has turned the administration of President George W. Bush into a scathing comedy-drama. Vice takes a slightly more comedic look at those years than Oliver Stone’s 2008 flick W. did. And it sidelines the often bumbling efforts of George W. to spotlight the somewhat more nefarious machinations of Vice President Dick Cheney. But it follows up on the more socially conscious, less slapstick-heavy promise of McKay’s 2015 biographical comedy The Big Short (which found bitter humor in the 2007 financial crisis). And depending on your own personal politics, it might be just the tonic you’re looking for right now.
Vice is narrated by “Kurt” (Jesse Plemons from “Friday Night Lights” and “Breaking Bad”), a fictitious Iraq War veteran. Kurt’s connection to the story of Mr. Cheney only becomes apparent much later on. But for the majority of the film, he takes viewers on a flashback tour of Dick Cheney’s wild and wooly life and adventures. The film follows Cheney from his drunken college days through his time working as a White House intern during the Nixon administration and into his life in the US House of Representatives during the Reagan administration.
Christian Bale (American Psycho, Batman Begins, The Fighter) would seem like an odd casting choice to take on the role of the fat, balding adult version of Dick Cheney. But the normally handsome English-American actor does an amazing job (ably assisted by a raft of makeup artists, no doubt) of transforming himself, physically, to play Cheney over a wide range of decades. The only caveat (and it’s not Bale’s fault) is that the film pretty much views its subject as a Machiavellian villain, wallowing in corruption, backstabbing and ruthless ambition. He’s not exactly an admirable (or even a particularly charismatic) guy, and (given the history with which we’re all familiar) he isn’t going to go though any major transformation of character over the course of this film’s 132 minutes. What you see is what you get.
The film’s crazy quilt casting continues into the supporting players, with Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. That’s some showy, star-power casting, all right. But in context, it all works in an “Oh, now I get it!” kind of way. (Rockwell, for example, is cartoonishly perfect.)
Like The Big Short, which employed various star cameos (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez) to explain complex financial concepts like subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations, Vice is also happy to break the fourth wall and wink at audiences. At one point the film even settles on a happy ending, in which Dick becomes CEO of Haliburton while his wife raises golden retrievers, and rolls the end credits—only to admit that the story doesn’t quite end there. We’ve still got that whole Sept. 11 thing to deal with.
The thrust of Vice seems to be that Dick Cheney’s raison d’etre was to rule the world—or at least grab as much power as humanly possible and hold onto it for as long as he could. Along the way, we get all the highlights: His struggles with alcohol, his daughter coming out as a lesbian, the War on Terror, the Plame Affair, that time he shot his friend Harry Whittington in the face with a shotgun.
McKay and crew play fast and loose with it all, jumping around in time and tone. Much of it is darkly funny, some of it is absurd, just about all of it is painful to remember. One could argue that such a crazy and tumultuous part of our country’s history should have been handled with a bit more gravity and a bit less meta satire. (There are plenty of other ironic cutaways, old movie clips, and visual gags in the film.) But here we are. Sprawling, messy and overflowing with ambition, this cautionary tale our country has already ignored is exhilarating in some parts and frustrating in others. Much like its subject’s hunting skills, Vice is a distinctly hit-and-miss affair. If you’re a fan of the former veep, you’re already complaining about this socialist Hollywood Michael Moore knockoff on Breitbart. If you’re a hard-left Bernie backer, you may find this comical recap lets far too many real-life people off the hook with chuckle and a pat on the back. If you’re inclined to laugh at the real-life hijinks of our country’s various psychopathic politicos, however, then Vice just might get your vote.