Movie Review: Biography/Comedy – Vice
Directed by Adam McKay
Written by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell
Are you looking for a fair and balanced biography of one of the most controversial political figures of our time? A carefully nuanced character study of the man whose enemies consider him a war criminal? A thoughtful attempt to understand the motivations for his questionable actions? Well then fuck off, because it isn’t Vice, Adam McKay’s blisteringly funny takedown of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
It’s not that the movie isn’t full of truth. As the narrator states, all the events in the film are based on documented facts. We know Cheney had two DUIs as a young man. We know he entered the White House as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Intern and yes man. We know Cheney was CEO of Haliburton, the oil field service and energy giant, and later awarded lucrative contracts to the company during the Iraq War. We know he was determined to invade Iraq and used 911 as an excuse to do so, even though his top intelligence was telling him Saddam Hussein and Iraq had nothing to do with it. We know he faked information about Iraq having WMDs, faked a press leak concerning the faked information, and went on television quoting the faked source as a reason for the invasion. We know that over 4,500 Americans and between 100,000 and 450,000 and possibly many more Iraqi civilians died in that needless conflict. We know Colin Powell had doubts and regrets about dispensing said false misinformation to congress under Cheney’s orders. We know Cheney took control of the White House during 911 to the dismay of cabinet members, including Condoleezza Rice. We know he betrayed his daughter Mary when he okayed her sister Liz’s denouncing of gay marriage in the latter’s 2014 bid to unseat Wyoming senator Mike Enzi as an appeasement to the anti-gay, republican far-right, despite being on record himself as having no problem with it. And we know he supported, along with soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, the most extreme interpretation of the unitary executive theory, giving the president absolute control over the executive branch of the government and supported the idea that the president can break the law simply because he’s president.
McKay’s film portrays those facts accurately but does so with the smarmy commentary of an editorial cartoonist, or a sketch writer from Saturday Night Live. That’s not surprising given that McKay was a former head writer for that show and collaborated with SNL star Will Ferrell on a series of silly and highly successful comedies including the Anchorman movies and Talladega Nights. But his creative breakthrough came with The Big Short, 2015’s scathing and chilling chronicle of the 2008 housing and banking collapse. As in that film, Vice breaks the fourth wall with frequent and hilarious abandon, employing narration by an unknown figure whose identity is only revealed near the end of the film and offering amusing asides such as a goofy false ending and various non-narrative explanations for those of us with limited knowledge of the governmental process. Vice may be unbalanced but it endlessly inventive and massively entertaining.
Several weeks ago, I criticized Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin for its poor judgement in juxtaposing the horrific crimes of fascist dictator Josef Stalin with lame slapstick, a failure in tone that rendered the movie’s attempts at black humor inept. So why does Vice succeed while Death of Stalin failed? Because we understand from the very beginning that it’s meant to be funny. The tone is set from the opening title card and never changes. Vice’s sassy humor and unsubtle condemnation of Cheney’s actions is never in doubt. And the movie doesn’t make light of the atrocities Cheney commits, but stands back, mocking his callous dismissal of human decency.
When it comes to Cheney’s personal life, McKay must resort to speculation. As we are reminded in the beginning, the Cheney’s are very private people, and little is known about their personal lives. “We tried our fucking best,” the opening titles proclaim. That “best” includes a early scene in which wife Lynne (Amy Adams) gives the hungover Cheney (Christian Bale) an ultimatum to either clean up his act or lose her. Cheney cleans up his act with a vengeance. Finishing college and entering the White House as an intern for the slimy “old boy” egotist Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) during the Nixon administration. Rumsfeld’s war-mongering nature and disregard for democratic principles influence the opportunistic Cheney and the two become inseparable peas in a pod, moving in and out of power as the American political climate changes, ultimately reaching their apex when the clueless George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) chooses him as a running mate upon the condition of an “understanding” in which Cheney is given unprecedented control over foreign and domestic policy.
There are sympathetic personal moments, most notably the poignant coming out of daughter Mary, in which Cheney embraces her with complete acceptance. And in an almost sweet moment, the excited young intern celebrates his success with his wife via a phone call from his miniscule White House office. The rest McKay fills in with admitted speculation and riotous humor. A love scene between the two senior Cheneys has them lasciviously reciting, in Shakespearean styled meter, dialogue that sounds suspiciously like the bard’s ultimate Machiavellian power couple, the murderous Macbeths.
Admittedly there’s not much room here for anything but caricature and as such, the all-star cast is memorable. Bale, encased in uncannily believable prosthetics, spends much of his screen time grunting, but that’s more than adequate. His make-up is so believable, his movements so accurate, you never doubt him for a moment. Carell has the same sweaty upper lip sleaziness as Rumsfeld and though he’s still recognizable, his resemblance to the former Secretary of Defense is only slightly less remarkable. While Rockwell’s impersonation of Bush, less reliant on make-up than on vocal imitation and mannerisms, is priceless. Tyler Perry is less believable as Colin Powell, but LisaGay Hamilton is a dead ringer for Condoleezza Rice. The real standout, though, is Amy Adams who manages to bring a touch of humanity to the deeply conservative Lynne.
Cheney, for those too young to remember, has suffered numerous heart attacks throughout his life, ultimately requiring a transplant in 2012. One of the film’s final images is of his diseased heart, sitting on a table after his surgery. Withered and blackened, it’s the ideal metaphor for the movie’s portrait of the man. Cheney may have a heart, but it’s one sickened with greed, lust for power, and the blatant disregard for the sacredness of human life. Yes, Vice is a left-leaning movie-length editorial. But it never pretends to be anything else. That’s its chief virtue, that it’s unafraid of having an opinion and alienating a large part of its audience. If only safer historical filmmakers like, say, Steven Spielberg, had such balls, history-based movies would be a lot more fun.
You may lean right and hate this movie. But its editorializing is based on incontrovertible facts, whether you care to admit it or not. You may call the critics who love this movie self-righteous libtards, accuse us of showering with adulation the liberally biased and fact stretching films of Michael Moore, while dismissing the ultra-right wing propagandistic lie-fests of Dinesh D’Souza, but the difference is that Moore is witty, inventive, funny, and grounded in reality, while D’Souza is a talentless, lying sack of shit without a funny bone in his entire racist body. Vice works because it’s brutal and unapologetic, honest about its prejudices, endlessly creative in expressing its opinions, ingeniously cast, and funny as hell. The real question shouldn’t be why Vice skews left, but why the real Dick Cheney hasn’t been prosecuted for war crimes.