December 15, 2018 – It becomes quickly obvious that this movie about Richard Bruce Cheney, the former vice president of the United States of America, is constructed a lot like “The Big Short” (2015). It is sort of a cross between a documentary, a historical drama and an experimental film.
Writer-Director Adam McKay wrote and directed both “Vice” and “The Big Short,” and both films feature some of the same actors, notably Christian Bale (who plays Cheney) and Steve Carell (who plays former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney's mentor).
The movie opens with Cheney in Casper, Wyoming (he was born and raised in Nebraska before the family moved to Wyoming). He is portrayed as a drunken, brawling loser, who is given an ultimatum by his wife, Lynne (played brilliantly by Amy Adams of “Nocturnal Animals”). Lynne tells Dick to either straighten up or she is leaving, referring to her own mother's unhappy marriage.
Next, we see a straightened up Dick Cheney in Washington D.C. where he latches on to Illinois Representative Donald Rumsfeld, a man described in the film as wielding power like a switchblade, rather than an axe (handy visual reference here). Both men rise to power in the Nixon administration and fall from power when Jimmy Carter becomes president. In political power games, Cheney has found his true calling. He then uses his connections to morph into a corporate titan, heading up the oilfield Halliburton company. That company continued to reap political rewards from Cheney years later, according to the movie.
Here, the film makes an abrupt change, depicting the happy home life of the Cheneys, with a sort of fake ending, one of those aforementioned experimental film techniques. Then there is the frequent use of a visual fishing metaphor to show how Cheney seemed to lure George W. Bush into naming him as a Vice Presidential candidate with the promise of unprecedented powers to come. Yet another experimental scene comes with Shakespeare-like dialog, as Dick and Lynne in bed ponder to run, or not to run, for Vice President. Cheney ends up as the most powerful Vice President in history after Bush is elected by either 537 votes or one vote, depending on how you count it (one of those crucial votes to halt the Florida recount on the Supreme Court came from an old acquaintance, Antonin Scalia).
Here, we get into the meat of the Cheney story as he appoints his friends, like Rumsfeld, to high places of power in the government and he works to enhance the concentration of power in the White House using a legal theory (which he first heard from Antonin Scalia) called the Unitary Executive theory. This theory is used to help start the war in Iraq, and to justify torture and use of sites like Guantonamo Bay and dark CIA sites in the so-called “war on terror.” The same theory is now used to argue that President Donald Trump cannot be tried on a felony charge.
Cheney's role in starting the Iraq war is maximized in this movie, with the most venal of motivations, the use of war to enhance the Bush Administration's approval rating with voters. Cheney persuades Bush to order Secretary of State Colin Powell to give a speech to the United Nations justifying the war, backed by dubious data.
Another experimental aspect of the film is an interlude with a focus group talking about the film itself, debating whether it is liberal-leaning or not. Then there is the cameo by Alfred Molina, playing a waiter offering up dubious Unitary Executive dishes like “enhanced interrogation” to Cheney and his friends. This is a movie filled with such gimmicks, such as the use of a character, Kurt, played by Jesse Plemons, who, like Schrödinger's cat, is both alive and dead at the same time at various points in this movie. He is the movie's main narrator.
So is it liberal leaning? I'd say yes, mainly because it chooses to include the notorious Valerie Plame episode (subject of the one-sided movie “Fair Game” in 2010). The Valerie Plame episode has been so badly twisted and abused by both liberals and conservatives it has become a caricature of itself (see the fact check here, at factcheck.org.
Admittedly, this movie is put together very cleverly, but the fact that it is so unconventional, and it revels in that, tends to work against its own attempts to create a compelling narrative. This is a self-reverential, self-aware and self-congratulatory movie that seems to be having a lot of fun skewering Dick Cheney, but, so what? It is more like a forced march through a series of political deeds, and misdeeds than it is a compelling story of a man's life. The movie also tends to gloss over the deadly costs of the bad decisions made by this administration.
The film is powered by the great performance by Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, who comes across as a kind of Lady Macbeth character. Christian Bale transforms himself into this boozy, overweight character very convincingly, with the aid of very convincing makeup to enhance his character's bald, middle aged look. He even manages to talk out of the side of his mouth, like Cheney does.
Yet, this isn't quite the Cheney I remember from our one-on-one talks we had when I was a young newspaper reporter in Wyoming. The real Cheney seemed sharper, smarter and more personable. Bale's Cheney is a low energy character, serious, sombre, ponderous, and really kind of dull. There is no spark in him. The Rumsfeld character is more alive.
The acting is very good in this movie, including fine performances from Carell, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell. LisaGay Hamilton is a dead ringer for Condoleezza Rice. The casting, by Francine Maisler (“Widows” and “First Man”) is spot on. This movie rates a B.
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