Caught in the middle of a Cheney action.
Movies about US politics aren’t for everyone, but the best ones transcend their genre and address universal issues in a way that resonates. It is difficult to know exactly what the producers of Vice are trying to tell us. One of the producers is Will Ferrell, so that might explain some of the confusion, but even so, anyone who knows even a little bit about American politics already knows who Dick Cheney is and was – most notably, Vice President to George W Bush – and this movie is unlikely to add much to that knowledge. And anyone looking for some deeper insights into Cheney’s motivation and character will be left disappointed, even at the end of its more than two-hour running time.
Unsurprisingly the Cheney family didn’t co-operate in making Vice, and right at the start we’re told that what follows is therefore a guess at what – or what might have – happened behind the scenes in the White House, in the Cheney household, and inside Cheney’s head. This approach could have given the producers licence to be creative and to tell a coherent story and adopt a consistent approach to telling it. But it’s as if having free rein to do what they want, they then tried to do a little bit of everything – biopic, mockumentary, comedy, farce, tragedy – and ended up doing something that’s not consistently anything.
The movie asserts that Cheney was driven to seize power for himself as Vice President, through the fiercely debated “unitary executive” political theory, under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. What’s less clear is what drove him to do that.
The movie sketches the younger Cheney as a drunken, brawling no-hoper, working as a linesman in his home state of Wyoming and recently married to someone far more ambitious for Cheney than he apparently is for himself. His transformation into the ruthless, calculating political and corporate operator (as chief executive officer of the oil services business Halliburton) is utterly mystifying and deserved more attention. Did it really only take one more dressing-down from his wife? Really, if that’s all it takes, we’d have been President years ago.
Cheney was certainly smart, though, and once he straightened up and found his life’s calling he became a force of nature, literally unstoppable despite suffering several heart attacks along the way.
The film’s narrator – we won’t spoil his connection to Cheney; let’s just say it’s one of the more poignant elements of the narrative – suggests Cheney’s calling was to be a servant to power. But then he does exactly the opposite by seeking to seize power for himself.
What Cheney does with that power is well covered, and the movie paints an effective picture of a government paralysed by fear and information overload, how the US lashed out at enemies both real and imagined in response and the circumstances presented to Cheney to take a leading role.
In the role of Cheney, Christian Bale won a Golden Globe for best actor – musical or comedy. It was not immediately obvious on our viewing that Vice was either of those things. But it has to be said, Bale is startlingly good. It’s one of those performances that is so complete and convincing that in looking for background information for this review and finding an image online it is a shock to be reminded that Bale’s Cheney is not what the real Cheney looks like.
Amy Adams is terrific as the vicariously ambitious Lynne Cheney, as is Steve Carrell as Donald Rumsfeld, who treats politics as a great game and only really seems to realise the enormity of what’s taken place towards the end of the film when he seems suddenly to realise the possibility of being sued for war crimes.
And Sam Rockwell brings an unexpected dimension to his role by playing Bush the younger not as the idiot he is popularly held to be, but as a reformed and capable man somewhat reticently driven to prove himself to his father.
A fine job is done transforming familiar actors into familiar political figures; and the further the film goes along the more they come to look like the figures we recognise.
Vice is directed by Adam McKay, who also directed the adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short (which also starred Bale and Carrell) and he adopts some of the same devices that were so effective then in simplifying complex issues. The big difference, though, is that most people could relate to the subject matter of that film because it was close to home – it dealt with some of the events that led to the global financial crisis and US housing crash in 2007, and we can generally all agree that they were A Bad Thing.
Politics is a different matter, though. We know politicians are venal and greedy. We know they are more interested in serving their own interests than ours. We know that truth and facts are no impediment to them doing what they want to do anyway.Whatever humanising element is portrayed by Cheney’s reluctance to run for the top job himself, which would have exposed his gay younger daughter’s marriage to public scrutiny, is overturned later in the movie when he gives his blessing to his elder daughter to run for office on an anti-gay-marriage platform. But “whatever it takes” is hardly an original insight into what drives those who seek power and control.
Perhaps the film’s best observations of what the bastardisation of politics has actually led to come right at the end. Bale as Cheney breaks the fourth wall to address the audience directly, and shifts the blame for a lot of what we’ve just seen back onto us. What else would we have had him do? And during its closing credits, a character representing the alt-right and a character representing the liberal elite come to physical blows during a focus group discussing whether or not the movie we’ve just watched is nothing more than liberal propaganda.
While they’re fighting, one presumably Millennial focus group member remarks to another that she can’t wait to see the new The Fast and the Furious movie, “it’s meant to be totally lit”. It’s the movie’s best illustration of a broken system, the divided nature of politics and the disengagement of voters that has enabled it to happen.