Rated R for language and some violent images. Two hours, 12 minutes.
Publication date: Dec. 21, 2018
Review by Peter Canavese
"Vice," written and directed by Adam McKay, proceeds to lay out the true story of how former Vice President Dick Cheney wrote his own ticket as V.P. under President George W. Bush, wreaking havoc around the globe in pursuit of power, profit and patriotism.
With a well-researched, legally vetted original screenplay, "Vice" proves as strikingly original in form as Oliver Stone's "JFK." McKay embraces his background in sketch-comedy as an essential component of his voice, boldly committing to a handful of satirical sketches that play out across the otherwise dramatic narrative of Cheney's life story and political career.
More importantly, McKay enlists his "Big Short" star Christian Bale to play Cheney. Bale's canny and uncanny performance nails Cheney's speech pattern and facial expressions but also holds the complex humanity of a loving husband and father capable of compartmentalizing to the nth degree. Aided by a 45-pound weight gain and prosthetics designed by Oscar-winner Greg Cannom, the 44-year-old Bale astonishingly embodies Cheney from age 22 to age 71.
We first see Cheney drunk driving home after a bar brawl in 1963 Wyoming; jailed for his second DUI, the Yale dropout subsequently faces the music from fiancée Lynne (a fiery eyed Amy Adams). At this first turning point, Cheney promises to shape up before Lynne ships out. Five years later, Congressional intern Dick finds a mentor in Donald "Rummy" Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), who laughs off Cheney's sincere query "What do we believe in?"
McKay tracks Cheney through his appointment as the youngest chief of staff in U.S. history (for Gerald Ford), his stint as a Congressman for his home state (highlighting his ultra-conservative voting record), and his fateful tenure as vice president under George W. Bush, essentially skipping past Cheney's time as Secretary of Defense under George H. W. Bush and as CEO of Halliburton.
In the film, 9/11 sets the stage for Cheney's masterpiece of power grabbing. McKay contemplates how horrible things happen to innocents half a world away based on decisions discussed casually in a "squat, little ugly building" while an overworked and underpaid, easily distracted, if not disinterested, citizenry largely fails to question the gathering storm of the Iraq War or to notice the attendant civil and human rights violations of the War on Terror, from warrantless surveillance to "enhanced interrogation" torture.
If democracy dies in darkness, McKay's heavy-handed symbolism feels like a direct gambit to shine a light on his fact-sourced account for the benefit of a broad audience. "Beware the quiet man..." goes the anonymous epigraph, and McKay returns consistently to the image of Cheney the fly fisherman, patiently standing alone in a lake as he reels in fish after fish to feed his family, and perhaps his ego, using his hard-won skills. The final climax constitutes a montage of Cheney's "heartless" decisions juxtaposed to the moment when he was literally heartless in an operating room.
Recent Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell makes a fine George W., but Carell is even better with a squinty, smiling, slimy Rumsfeld so spot on as to elicit an iota of sympathy along with our antipathy.
All in all, "Vice" offers infotaining Hollywood history that's equal parts funny and horrifying in its high-stakes political gamesmanship, with so many souls (including those of the Cheney family) in the balance. Although the basic facts are unassailable, political perspectives will disagree on McKay's conclusions. Either way, McKay dares what no one else has with a wide-release Hollywood film: put in the glaring spotlight the top-notch political operative and tenacious survivor that is Dick Cheney, along with the unfortunately still-relevant unitary executive theory that was his most dangerous tool.
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