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Review: Vice

January 17, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning 2015 film The Big Short was no typical financial drama. The film instead broke the fourth wall and used meta humour and a variety of other stylistic touches to offer a powerful examination of the 2008 economic crisis that was as compelling and informative as it was entertaining.

McKay strives to do something similar and mostly succeeds with Vice, an examination of Dick Cheney’s political career and how he rose to become the most powerful vice president in history, that blows up the usual biopic formula to offer a deeply subversive film that is a lot more transgressive and opinionated than your typical political or historical drama.

The film opens on the morning of 9/11, with Vice President Cheney (Christian Bale) taking over the phone lines in the situation room, and laying the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq. We then flash back to see his early life as a drunken college student who drops out of Yale due to bad grades and goes to work on the power lines in Wyoming, before being pushed by his then-fiancée Lynne (Amy Adams) to actually make something of his life.

From here, Vice shows us how Cheney cut his teeth in Washington during the Nixon years, working alongside Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell) – promoted to Secretary of Defence in the Ford administration – who teaches him how to play the political long game and slowly inch his way into the upper echelons of power. After spending a decade as a congressman himself during the Reagan era, and being selected to serve as Secretary of Defence under George H.W. Bush (John Hilner), Cheney would leave politics altogether to become the CEO of the oil company Halliburton in the 1990s.

This could have been “happily ever after” for him and his family – and the film even gives us a clever false ending – but Cheney is pulled back into the game when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) decides to run for president and selects him as his running mate. Cheney only agrees if he is given unprecedented amounts of power within the administration, and the rest, as they say, is history. It’s here that Vice starts to reveal its most pointed moments, and the film’s last section focuses on how the Bush administration used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to invade Iraq, mostly under false pretences.

Working alongside Rumsfeld, who is brought in to once again serve as Secretary of Defence, Cheney lays the groundwork for the war through a misinformation campaign relying upon links that were tenuous at best to convince the public that the al-Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for orchestrating 9/11 had connections to Iraq. Bolstered by highly sketchy intel claiming that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had acquired weapons of mass destruction, the administration successfully pushed through the war which, at the time, the majority of Republicans and Democrats almost unanimously supported.

McKay reveals the full extent of his rage as a filmmaker when pulling back the curtain to show the untold damage that was done by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was mainly lobbied for by private companies who wanted to take over the country’s vast oil fields. Yes, the tone of Vice is often irreverent and at times downright flippant, but it also serves as a sobering reminder that the death toll of the Iraq War was in the thousands, costing the lives of both US soldiers and Iraqi civilians, and serving to destabilize the region in a way that allowed the militant organization known as ISIL (or ISIS) to form.

The film serves as a collage of several decades worth of American political history, and the supporting cast features a veritable who’s who of Washington power players then and now, as familiar faces like Henry Kissinger (Kirk Bovill), Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton) and Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) keep popping up throughout. These “cameos”, if you will, actually make the film sort of fun to watch for anyone who follows American politics, even just passively.

Cheney and many of the people around him are presented as lusting for maximum power no matter what the cost, relying upon the unitary executive theory – an interpretation of the Constitution stating that the president has the power to control the entire executive branch, in theory allowing a leader to act without impunity under the belief that if the president does something than therefore it is not illegal, as explained in the film by a young Antonin Scalia (Sam Massaro) – to push things through.

While McKay makes no secret of the fact that he views his central subject as an almost Shakespearian villain – as evidenced by the heightened nature of a scene where Dick and Lynne literally converse as if they are in a Shakespeare play – Vice also manages to show Cheney in a surprisingly sympathetic light at times. This is most true in moments with his wife and their two children, including a tender scene when his teenaged daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as lesbian and he vows to support her, even though that revelation could have derailed his political career at the time.

The one aspect of Vice that has been drawing the most praise is Christian Bale’s performance, and understandably so. Bale’s chameleon-like qualities as a performer are what has always made him so exciting to watch, and the actor transforms himself into the role of Dick Cheney, having gained forty pounds to take on the part. Aided by a seamless use of makeup and prosthetics, Bale offers a compelling and eerily believable portrayal, right down to his hand gestures and mannerisms which the actor studied closely as part of his character research.

The film is peppered with memorable supporting turns from its ensemble cast. Lynne Cheney is shown to be the woman behind the curtain, so to speak, and Adams portrays her in a quietly powerful way. The film shows her as someone who sought the sort of roles that wouldn’t have been afforded to a woman at the time, so she used her husband as her conduit for obtaining power, and remained in lockstep with him through every stage of his career. Adams is excellent in the role, and serves as a similarly driving force within the movie, making her the perfect counterpart to Bale’s commanding leading work.

George W. Bush is presented here as an easily manipulated buffoon who desperately wants to appear powerful and in charge, as those around him pull the strings, and Rockwell leans into this portrayal, stealing every moment. Carell plays Rumsfeld almost like an outlandish villain – he constantly makes inappropriate comments and literally laughs out loud when Cheney asks him early on what it is that they actually believe in – but it’s a portrayal that, in the world of McKay’s film, works quite well. I’m actually curious to see the musical number that was reportedly cut from the film, featuring Rumsfeld showing Cheney the ropes through a full-scale song and dance production.

Even with the absence of this sequence, Vice is still filled with stylistic flourishes, and also has a few surprises up its sleeve, including the identity of its mysterious narrator (Jesse Plemons), who appears onscreen at several key points to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly. The presence of this character, and how he ties into the main story, is ultimately one of the film’s boldest and most interesting narrative choices.

I will admit that McKay’s approach can be heavy-handed at times, and it’s easy to understand why some viewers have been put off by the film’s freewheeling, almost cavalier tone. The film functions as a biopic, yes, but it’s also somewhat of a satire. At times it feels like a “greatest hits” of Cheney’s career, while at other times there is a sketch comedy feel to it, showing the inner workings of Washington in an absurdly humorous light. The film is funny, but it also sets itself up as a sad and angry drama about what drives people to want power, and the degradation of democracy by those who seek to undermine it for their own personal gain.

The film ends with a highly meta mid-credits scene featuring a focus group of stereotypical liberals and conservatives arguing over the movie that we just saw. It pokes fun at the “left vs. right” dichotomy that has come to plague so many of our political discussions these days, but it also feels somewhat cynical, and it’s one of the few moments when it feels like McKay is taking cheap shots at his subjects. The real purpose of this scene is to criticize audience members themselves for not being more involved in the political process while these things were actually happening.

The scene itself lacks nuance and feels on the nose, but then again, maybe that’s the point. The majority of people just want entertainment, and aren’t interested in a deeper, more contextualized conversation, which kind of makes the fact that McKay ultimately reduces this conversation to what is essentially a glorified punchline all the more ironic. It’s also more than a little amusing that the same filmmaker who cut his teeth making classic comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers is now chastising people for not being more engaged with politics.

At times we can tell that McKay struggled to nail down the tone of Vice throughout the post-production process, whittling it down to 132 minutes from a much longer initial cut, and the film ultimately doesn’t hit as hard as The Big Short did a few years ago. And yet, despite all these things, Vice still worked for me. This is a sprawling, occasionally messy film that is both quite entertaining to watch and also has a righteous fire burning underneath that makes it sting, bolstered by excellent performances.

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