The story of Dick Cheney’s startling political career is the subject of Adam McKay’s Vice, in which Christian Bale stars as the former White House Chief of Staff, Halliburton CEO, and Vice President to George W. Bush. Amy Adams plays his supportive wife, Lynne, while Sam Rockwell portrays George W. Bush; Steve Carell is Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry is on hand as Colin Powell. So, is it a balanced portrait, told fairly and with both sides represented with total accuracy? Don’t be silly.
Regardless of which side of the political fence it falls on, I’ll take a film depicting real-life politics with a passionate perspective, flawed characters, and some fire in its belly, over a dull, drier-than-crackers hagiography like Steven Spielberg’s snooze-fest, Lincoln. This is a cinematic character assassination of Cheney and I have no issue with the film’s extremely critical view of his life and career. The problem is that Vice is terminally uneven and constantly derails every time it establishes some momentum.
The first half is dreary and limited in its scope, as Bale’s uncanny physical replication of Cheney can’t overcome how little the screenplay has to say about him. Vice picks up in the second half, when Cheney aligns himself with Bush as his running mate in the momentous 2000 election. From there, the overstuffed screenplay hits all the talking points (like 9/11, the War on Terror, the search for WMDs, the hunting incident, etc.) without exploring them with any depth. While McKay gets far more mileage in recreating past political headlines than Jason Reitman did with his The Front Runner, none of these big moments – not even a subplot allotted to Cheney’s openly gay daughter – are developed enough.
McKay clearly intends to mimic the approach of Oliver Stone, with similarly broad performances and slyly comic historical reenactments presented with creative editing choices. Vice doesn’t hold a candle to its most obvious cinematic cousin, Stone’s W. The comparison is telling: Stone’s 2008 takedown of Dubya was rambling and perhaps too early, but showcased terrific performances and managed to compartmentalize its on-the-nose talking points. Stone is a strong storyteller and crafts all his works on a grand scale; McKay, on the other hand, works best in little moments, as his latest doesn’t seem to know where it’s going or even when to stop. W., while far from flawless, was a landmark film for being produced and released while its subject matter was still in The White House. Vice covers more ground and offers a decade of hindsight over W. but seems similarly unfinished and far more unsatisfying. Finally, Vice matches the anger of W. but, unlike Stone’s film, fails to offer a layered examination into the psyche of its characters.
Bale is impressive as always, though he and his co-stars are just a shade above “SNL” impersonations (as great as Bale is here, I actually prefer Richard Dreyfuss’ nuanced turn as Cheney in W.). Carell’s overdone take on Rumsfeld makes me long for his triumphant, dialed-down work in the recent Beautiful Boy (here, he’s like a more lucid version of his Anchorman character). Rockwell has some good moments but he’s not in this enough. Meanwhile, Perry is cleverly cast as Powell but occasionally appears to be struggling to maintain a straight face. A major problem is Jesse Plemons’ contribution: His mush-mouthed narration is terrible, as is the big reveal of his mysterious character near the end. In an extended cameo as a Fox News Reporter, Naomi Watts looks positively lost. It’s Adams who digs the deepest and delivers the most satisfying turn (the scene where Lynne delivers a speech in her husband’s absence on the campaign trail is among the film’s strongest).
There are playful touches that work, like an ingenious mid-film fake-out, the likes of which hasn’t been attempted since Gremlins 2. Less successful is having a character break the fourth wall and address the audience in the final scene; this sequence, and a mid-credits bit that addresses our current political divide, is disastrous. The modern day editorializing was a mistake, as the Trump and contemporary Fox News references instantly date and undermine the pre-MAGA-hat era being depicted.
McKay’s prior film, The Big Short, was a fabulous real-life drama, brilliantly mixing satire with somber immediacy. There are scenes here that work but they stand out from too many that are tonally off or short sighted. There is outrage in Vice that makes it very 2018 but it lacks fresh, astute observations to make it important.
Rated R / 132 Min.
Photo courtesy IMDB