It pulls no punches yet misses the target
Written and directed by Adam McKay, this movie about Dick Cheney is painful to watch. Not because it’s terrible, but because it brings back traumatic memories of the days not that long ago when Cheney was the acting president of the United States. Coming out in the Trump era, in which the news cycle of government dysfunction spins so fast, Vice has the strange property of making the early 2000s look like ancient history. Today, we are concerned with the daily assaults that the Trump administration commits against democracy and the rule of law, but Vice serves as a fresh and brutal reminder that our current travesty has precedent. It shows how the office of presumably the most powerful person on Earth is a magnet for the power hungry, which if wily enough, can send our vaunted checks and balances on a hike to nowhere.
As he did in The Big Short, his movie about the financial collapse of 2008, McKay uses a style that can be loosely called collage, interspersing actors with real footage, using ironic titles, and having actors break the fourth wall and speak directly to camera. Vice doesn’t have much of a plot but it’s a fast, furious and not very detailed account of how Cheney got from being a drunk electrician in Wyoming to CEO of Halliburton and de facto President of the US.
Vice is raw and outraged and feels undisciplined. Satire is misrule, but it works best with rigor. I wonder if a fictionalized account with more ironic distance would be more chilling. Still, the cast is a world of pros. Christian Bale is physically uncanny as Cheney and he gets all the mannerisms right. But at the center of his committed performance, the man remains inscrutable. McKay gives him some positive traits: he is a loyal and loving father and husband. A humanizing note is that he stands by his gay daughter. He also has regularly scheduled heart attacks (this is the funniest part of the movie, somehow). But I still don’t understand what makes him tick, and “power” is not a satisfying answer. The movie posits the theory that his wife, Lynne Cheney, the excellent Amy Adams, was like his Lady Macbeth — the one influence that straightened him and sent him on the path to the proximity to power. As a character, she is far more interesting. The rest of the splendid cast is wasted — Steve Carell does a good imitation of the cocky asshole that is Donald Rumsfeld, Sam Rockwell is great as a rather dim George Bush. Alfred Molina delivers as a waiter who recites a very special menu. But, except for Adams, none of them have much to play with. You cannot hire Eddie Marsan (Paul Wolfowitz) and not use him. This is a sin.
Still, Vice doesn’t shirk away from the horrors that Cheney and his colleagues wrought on American foreign policy after 9/11. It uses footage of the towers falling on 9/11, footage, both recreated and real, of American soldiers and agents torturing detainees, footage of the wars that this man started under false premises and for which we’re still paying today. It places the blame for ISIS squarely on Cheney’s shoulders.
I think Vice would have been more powerful if it were told in a more conventional way, but satire is sorely needed these days and it looks like Adam McKay has found his calling.