Vice Written and directed by Adam McKay; cinematography by Greig Fraser; edited by Hank Corwin; music by Nicholas Britell; with Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Tyler Perry
Just one day after Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States, the comedian Aziz Ansari hosted “Saturday Night Live.” In his opening monologue he related how he had spent the previous days watching with longing the old speeches of the former Republican president, George W. Bush.
“And I was sitting there and I’m watching this speech,” Ansari said, “and I’m like, ‘What the hell has happened? I’m sitting here wistfully watching old George W. Bush speeches?’ Just sitting there like, ‘What a leader he was!’ Sixteen years ago, I was certain this dude was a dildo. Now, I’m sitting there like, ‘He guided us with his eloquence!’”
Ever since, for the past two years, the veteran sketch program has followed the line set by Ansari. “Saturday Night Live” has established itself as a liberal bastion on which Alec Baldwin’s Trump imitations provide a transitory catharsis for Democrats and infuriate Republicans on a weekly basis.
Adam McKay, the director and screenwriter of “Vice,” was formerly the head writer for “Saturday Night Live” and created comedies with Will Ferrell. In his previous directorial project, “The Big Short” (2015; available on Netflix), he took on a serious subject and deconstructed the economic crisis of 2008. His comedic background helped him simplify a complex financial tale and make a film both enjoyable and important. He has taken a similar point of view in attempting to decipher an equally enigmatic phenomenon: former Vice President Dick Cheney.
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As part of his advance preparation of a response to critics, McKay opens “Vice” with the disclaimer that what we are about to see is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history. But we did our fucking best.” That’s the tension at the heart of the gray public image of Dick Cheney, who succeeded in reaching the top and navigating the White House from the position of vice president. It’s also the principal challenge facing the director-screenwriter, who effectively meets it by turning an official devoid of charisma into an intriguing protagonist. As a character, Cheney is neither complex nor interesting, but he is definitely entertaining and enjoyable to watch. No mean feat in itself, in this case.
When the story begins, in the 1960s, Cheney is in distant Wyoming, young, roughhewn and without ambition. His acute intellect gained him a scholarship to Yale, but a penchant for alcohol sent him back home. There the story would have ended, had his partner, Lynne (Amy Adams), not been a dominant force in her own right. Young Dick had already come to terms with a life of drinking and manual labor, when Lynne made it clear to him that she, for one, did have ambitions. Every door was closed to her, however, she explained, because she was a woman. Lynne gave him an ultimatum: If he didn’t get his act together and make something of himself, she would find another man. The movie is at its best when the couple are together, especially with their daughters in later years.
But most of “Vice” is an attempt to cover a 50-year career by leaping from one landmark to the next, like entries in a Wikipedia biography – and just as superficial. McKay makes sure not to miss a thing, and where he lacks information he intersperses humorous, speculative fantasy segments in an effort to guess what he doesn’t know.
Cheney’s takeoff begins in 1968, when he ties his fate to a young legislator named Donald Rumsfeld, played by Steve Carell in a comic turn that ridicules the character. Cheney accompanies Rumsfeld to Richard Nixon’s White House, and leaves with him just before the president becomes embroiled in the Watergate scandal, which took down everyone still in his orbit. When Gerald Ford inherits the Nixon White House, the two, having emerged unscathed from Watergate, are rewarded with significant upgrades. Rumsfeld is appointed secretary of defense and Cheney becomes White House chief of staff. Both are the youngest ever to hold their respective positions, which become professional springboards in the private sector and the Republican administrations that follow: those of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
In “Vice,” McKay is more stylistically adventurous than in “The Big Short,” blending drama, comedy, sarcasm and even deliberately exaggerated fantasy. Where the previous movie was something like a long lecture about the economic crisis, stylized and sweeping but at times fragmented and confusing, in “Vice” McKay has internalized the criticism and produced a clear, coherent narrative. At the same time, he took to heart the praise he received for breaking form and structure: in “Vice” the plot leaps forward and backward in time, as well as sideways or completely out of the frame. For example, a political confrontation between two bland government officials abruptly cuts to a grainy shot from a nature film in which a predator lies in ambush for its prey in the savannah. The director stays with the narrative structure for only a few minutes at a stretch, only to return to the past, leap into the future, focus on a different character – winking at the viewers time and again.
McKay appeals expressly to a liberal audience, for whom Cheney is a bad, if vague, memory. The director seems to see the mystery surrounding his protagonist and the large holes in his biography as an opportunity to give free rein to his imagination. The result is a repeated movement between a precise reconstruction of the facts and fantasy segments where there aren’t any.Thus, self-aware cinematic elements, such as humorous voice-over narration and the breaking of the fourth wall cohere into one sweeping plot, amid McKay’s trademark frenetic, brusque editing, which sometimes cuts off a character in mid-sentence only in order to enter into the director’s universe of associations. Each scene can generate laughter and amuse – like an entire dialogue between Lynne and Dick that’s drawn directly from Shakespeare – but the whole is infused with a conspiratorial air, evoking the documentary style of Michael Moore.
The film’s biggest success also reflects its biggest flub, namely Christian Bale. The fact that he grows with Cheney across five decades only underscores his impressive ability to adopt every external aspect of the man down to his smallest mannerisms, from posture and movement to the side-of-the-mouth smile and the lack of charisma. The flub lies in a meager, demagogic script, which turns Cheney into a superficial, simplistic villain of the type that characterizes unsophisticated comic-book and science fiction movies. Cheney’s relationship with Lynne and with his daughters, particularly the worries about his lesbian daughter and her exposure in the media, occasionally interject the feeling that he’s human after all. But such scenes are no more than a dim ray of light in a black hole. Bale extracts the maximum from the character, but doesn’t get enough tools to offset the caricature with content and heft.
Bale and McKay’s Cheney is a character devoid of humanity, motivated solely by a craving for power and money. In the family scenes, when Cheney is portrayed as a flesh-and-blood individual with desires and longings, McKay is quick to interject segments of fantasy, memory or jest that call into question what we’ve just seen. Bale’s taciturn, winking character locates Cheney somewhere between the embodiment of evil and a predatory animal driven by instinct. The question of who Dick Cheney is, which the film tries to answer, remains unanswered. McKay portrays the way in which Bush delegated powers to his vice president, and how Cheney bent, twisted and perhaps even breached the Constitution to promote surveillance of citizens, deprive terror suspects of their rights and wage several wars simultaneously. But the attempt to connect the dots to a razor-sharp narrative subverts the effort to understand the man’s complex character.
The emphasis on Cheny’s villainy goes beyond the glorification of his power and intelligence, to the diminutization of others in his circle. The film creates the impression that Cheney operated in a vacuum: the vice president and a collection of dwarfs. Although the younger Bush isn’t known as a brilliant intellectual, neither is he the total imbecile that Sam Rockwell’s characterization makes him out to be. The real Bush was indeed an alcoholic in rehab, the black sheep of his father’s house, but by 2000 he saw the light, gave up drinking and repented as an ardent evangelist who gets guidance from God. He relied on Cheney, yes, but he also shared his worldview, which included the “axis of evil.”
Three months after the invasion of Iraq, he told a Palestinian delegation headed by Mahmoud Abbas, “God [told] me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.’ And I did.” The real Bush who thinks for himself and signs presidential orders doesn’t appear in the film. So too with Colin Powell, who with one false presentation persuaded America to go to war and is depicted as an ultimate victim. A chairman of the joint chiefs and a secretary of state with an agenda of his own, becomes, for McKay, a naive peon who is crushed by the master.
And then there is Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s patron, who became an ally and then a secretary of defense who takes orders from him. Carell, like Bale, enters Rumsfeld’s shoes as far as externals are concerned, but the script doesn’t allow him to rise above the level of an amusing imitation of the “Saturday Night Live” type. Carell’s Rumsfeld is largely comic relief that helps exalt and augment Cheney’s might. The real Rumsfeld, though, was a bruising politician who rammed his way to the top like a semi-trailer. He became the youngest secretary of defense in American history and a leading candidate to become Reagan’s vice president, a position he lost at the last minute to the elder Bush. Under the younger Bush and Cheney, he was, in disturbing ways, a dominant and creative defense secretary, one of the architects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the author of tens of thousands of memos that shaped the Pentagon.
Just five years ago, Errol Morris’ excellent documentary, “The Unknown Known,” offered a free and untrammeled interview with Rumsfeld. That film shows where “Vice” fails most acutely: in its lack of empathy. Not compassion or forgiveness, but human empathy, the ability to see for a moment through someone else’s eyes, to enter into the inner logic of what drives him, however repulsive it may be.
McKay chooses a distant gaze, alienated and self-aware. He allows himself to be no less cynical, overbearing and contempt-filled than Cheney himself. So much so, that Cheney’s heart attacks become a running gag and the heart transplant he undergoes is a metaphor for lack of humanity. The result is for the most part entertaining and fast-paced, and provides a momentary catharsis for liberals, like a long, well-crafted sketch on “Saturday Night Live.” However, as a film whose ambition is to convey a political message, what it mostly does is give the American left a bad name.