Vice kicks off with two key moments that fundamentally shaped Dick Cheney’s (Christian Bale) life. The first, in 1964, is a drunk driving incident that leads to him spending a night in jail, and his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) giving him an ultimatum: either he cleans up his act and becomes something, or she’s gone. The second is September 11, 2001.
Those scenes set the tone for the rest of Adam McKay’s film, which doesn’t try to be a biopic of Dick Cheney but a biopic of an era, with a sobering reminder that one individual can have a terrible, lasting impact on all of us.
The action unfurls in fairly linear fashion after those initial moments, tracking Cheney’s rise from congressional intern, to young Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell, who gives a glimpse of a bizarro universe where Michael Scott has made it to the highest echelons of government) right hand man during the Nixon years, through his appointments as Chief of Staff during the Ford (Bill Camp) administration, his election to Congress in the late 1970s, his tenure as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush (John Hillner), his corporate transition to CEO of Haliburton, and finally, his decision to become George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) vice president.
That political narrative is interwoven with strands of family life: the birth of daughters Liz (Lily Rabe) and Mary (Alison Pill), the latter’s coming out as a lesbian (and the family’s ensuing ideological struggle), Lynne as a driving political and conservative force in her own right, and Dick’s multiple heart attacks. (So many, in fact, that McKay left one on the cutting room floor, and, in an ironic and strange turn of events, had one himself after the end of principal photography, which he attributes to the stress of making this movie.)
Much like The Big Short, Vice takes a boisterous, populist approach to a complex, somewhat inaccessible topic. If you enjoyed watching Margot Robbie explaining economic theory from a bathtub, just wait until you see Alfred Molina as a waiter breaking down today’s War On Terror a la carte specials, or Naomi Watts as a Fox News anchor talking straight at the audience. That breaking of the fourth wall is an effective technique for setting up a world of wild, unchecked abuses of power from the perspective of those involved, without actually making us root for them, but it does feel gimmicky after a while. It’s the 2018 equivalent of the “scratch record, ‘you’re probably wondering how I got here.’”
Bale goes all in as Cheney. The actor reportedly gained nearly 40 pounds for the role, and spends two hours raspily speaking out of the corner of his mouth in a manner so convincing that it’s hard to recall what the real Cheney looks or sounds like. He doesn’t make Dick sympathetic — how could he? — but he does ensure that you remained glued to the screen.
Still, Adams matches — if not exceeds — this portrayal with a scene-stealing one of her own. To watch her as Lynne is to track the rise of conservative white women, the same group that would eventually put Donald Trump in the White House. Whether she’s campaigning for her husband while he’s in the hospital, ranting about those East Coast feminists who are burning their bras, or whispering to Dick that everyone’s staring at them as the premiere political couple in the country, she never lets us forget that there’s a woman at the center of this story.
Watching them play off one another is exhilarating, and never more so than a parody scene that shows Lynne and Dick in bed, reciting Shakespearean monologues in a subversive wink to their Machiavellian political planning.
Still, the casting feels more gimmicky than it should. It’s hard for any actor to disappear into a role as fresh in recent memory as the Bush administration — especially when they’re introduced in the most flashy way possible — and besides Bale and Adams, no one does. Instead of following developed characters, you’re left thinking “lol Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.”
A movie about Dick Cheney automatically runs the risk of making us root for him on some level. But while McKay has fun with his subject — including a gag ending that imagines what would have happened if he had retired from politics forever in the early 1990s — he also takes care to show the people affected by his decisions. When the order is given to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom, George W. Bush’s rousing address to the nation is intercut with footage of a Baghdad family trembling under their dining room table as the bombs fall around their home. (Another analogy is made during this moment that I’m not thrilled with, however.)
The complete absence of any Democrats aside from some quick real-world footage of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama keeps us immersed in a Republican bubble — there is no alternative ideology presented here. But the narration by an outsider whose identity I won’t spoil (played by Jesse Plemons) helps to give us someone to identify with, a focal point that isn’t Cheney himself. The flip side of that, though, is that a lot of the action is told rather than shown. (And you know what they say about showing, not telling.)
My main gripe with Vice is that we never never quite figure out what drives Dick. Is it a thirst for power? Money? True patriotism? Religious zealotry? The fact that his wife once told him to get out there and kick butt? All of the above? To a certain extent, that lack of context effectively contributes to the feeling of nihilistic chaos that’s so in line with politics post-2016 election. But it also doesn’t provide insight on the person the movie claims to actually be about.