“Vice” is a big-screen biopic/satire about Dick Cheney’s four decades in government (not counting his years away while running Halliburton).
It stars an unrecognizable-under-the-makeup-and-prosthetics Christian Bale, in another brilliant performance, and Amy Adams, perfect as Lynne Cheney, not only his partner in life but also the steely driver of his power. The movie tracks Cheney’s rise from a Capitol Hill intern to the Nixon White House to a seat in Congress to the George H.W. Bush administration to his eight years as Vice President, when he was secretly in control of so much of George W. Bush’s presidency. Through it all, he became masterful at the manipulation of politics, public opinion, and the power of the presidency.
The problem with parodying someone like Cheney is that there was nothing funny about anything he did, including his multiple heart attacks. The man never smiled, only sneered, as he twisted the system to his will. “Vice” spends much of its last half reviewing how Cheney and his team turned the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks into an excuse to try to take over Iraq and its oil in an effort to enrich big companies like Exxon, Chevron, and Halliburton. Although you never hear any news about Iraq any more, we’re still paying for that mistake fifteen years later, with thousands of American families still coping with the deaths or injuries of military men and women forced to fight in a corrupt war. Not to mention the devastation it caused to Iraqis.
“Vice” is not the first movie to tackle that subject. Oliver Stone’s “W” and Rob Reiner’s “Shock and Awe” tread much of the same ground, but couldn’t draw an audience. In fact, Reiner’s film didn’t even get major distribution and made less than $100,000 at the box office.
That’s why I’m not sure who the audience will be for “Vice.” Conservatives will stay away and lambaste it as a liberal Hollywood attack on one of their heroes (although if they did go see it, they’d probably renew their support of Cheney, believing he always did the right thing for America). Some liberals will like it, but most of them — like my wife — have no interest in reliving that time, particularly while we’re in the midst of more White House chaos. Considering the news that flows out of Washington every day, who wants to spend more time with an unrepentant, power-mad douchebag?
That being said, I do have to praise the performances in “Vice.” Not only are Bale and Adams remarkable, but Steve Carrell does his best work of the year as Donald Rumsfeld, and Sam Rockwell avoids falling into the Will-Ferrell-imitation trap as George W. Bush. And how about this supporting cast:
- Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, whose lesbianism was used as a wedge issue by Cheney’s political opponents, and eventually by her sister Liz Cheney (Lily Rabe);
- Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby;
- LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice;
- Bill Camp as Gerald Ford;
- Tyler Perry as Colin Powell;
- Alfred Molina as a waiter;
- Naomi Watts as a Fox news anchor;
- Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz;
- Don McManus as David Addington, Cheney’s legal genius who created the Unitary Executive Theory, which gave the president all sorts of new authorities never before considered, which have also been invoked by both Obama and Trump;
- Jesse Plemons as an everyman character named Kurt, whose connection to Cheney becomes clear late in the movie.
That’s quite an ensemble, with nary a weak spot. Still, the entire project depends on its leading man. Indisputably, he’s up to it — in both talent and weight gain — and will likely be nominated for every acting award possible. But I found watching Bale play Cheney conflicting, because the former was so good and the latter was so evil.
Writer/director Adam McKay used this same combination of history and humor when he made “The Big Short” a few years ago. It worked then, but it seems off-putting in “Vice.” I admire the effort, but didn’t enjoy having my stomach turning in knots watching the story unfold again. And I renew my doubts about its box office appeal.
I give “Vice” a 6 out of 10, with one added note: if you do go see it, don’t leave when the credits start to roll.