Any worries — expressed in other reviews — that “Vice” would render the monstrously Machiavellian Dick Cheney “sympathetic” in an effort to understand him seem misguided.. The title of Adam McKay’s broad-based take-down of the ruthless ex-vice president is “Vice,” not “Nice.”
But there isn’t any confusing of McKay, “SNL” veteran, comic scribe for Will Ferrell, “Anti-Man” and “Drunk History” for the new Oliver Stone, either. “Vice” a mad grab bag of styles, scandals, fact and myth that shows post “Big Short” ambition if not a lot of polish.
“Vice,” using a variety of techniques — audio that sounds like secret surveillance recordings, an invented narration, meetings recreated from the record or reconstructed since the Bush White House erased millions of emails to cover Cheney’s tracks, even a faux Shakespearean Lady Macbeth and her Lord in bed — builds the case that the wildly unpopular, power-drunk blunderer Cheney is the linchpin that ties GOP “theories” of the limits of Constitutional power and its fervent misuse in the hands of a corrupt, venal and wrong-headed King of the Chicken-Hawks.
Christian Bale plays Cheney from his “ne’er do well” youth — a wasted Yale admission lost because he was wasted all the time –through the blue collar early days of his marriage to the Born to be a DC Wife Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams, fierce), who fumes at his power company lineman work and after-hours drunken bar brawling “I’ve picked the wrong man.”
Being from a tiny state, Wyoming, meant that just a little enterprise and a few connections could get him into the Congressional Internship program, and hitching his star to swaggering, salty Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, terrific) . Cheney learns the secret to success in the 1960s-and-onward GOP.
He follows “Rummy” into the Nixon White House, but not when he’s demoted overseas. Cheney shifts between the public and private sectors — energy, Halliburton — climbs the ladder in the Reagan and Bush I White Houses, angling his way toward that fateful day when guileless goof Bush II (Sam Rockwell, perfect at conveying the confidence that doesn’t quite hide stupidity) lets Cheney steal the store to take the “thankless” job of Vice President.
Bush is a “decisive” know-nothing in “Vice,” Rumsfeld a better operator and turf warrior than big thinker — “I’m like bed bugs. You have to burn the mattress to get rid of me.”
The other neo-cons of the 9/11 debacle and its Iraq War aftermath — Wolfowitz (Eddie Marsan), Scooter Libby (Justin Kirk) float by like caricatures of the venomous reptiles who “engineered” the unwarranted invasion of Iraq and the rise of ISIS.
Cheney? He was “the quiet man,” currying favor, garnering power — “authorizing” the Air Force to shoot down any jetliner being used as a weapon, personally ordering the leak of the name of a CIA agent (Valerie Plame) to “punish” her critical husband, bulldozing differences of opinion and covering up former employer Halliburton’s rapacious billing of the US for the war Mr. Cheney ginned up.
Jesse Plemons plays the narrator, a character whose identity is one of the many surprise twists McKay cooks up. As a device, he has to be omnipotent, carrying the point of view of the filmmaker. As a device he’s clumsy. Naomi Watts comes off better as EveryFoxBlonde in a more biting invention, mimicking the echo chamber that turns its viewers further and further into the darkness.
Bale, bulking up to the weight that kept the inert Cheney in and our of heart attack wards (also covered up), speaking in the measured cadences of a man taking his time, speaking for shock value (an early Cheney trait, making outlandish suggestions, which he’d then reel in to something “reasonable”), gives an unerring portrayal of political manipulation.
What Hannah Arendt famously said of “The banality of evil” when talking about perpetrators of The Holocaust fits here. He’s a boring cutthroat with empathy issues (save when it comes to his gay daughter -played Alison Pill), a self-confident bully who gives no more thought to second guessing his litany of blunders and crimes than he’d give that second helping of pork ribs.
McKay’s gimmicky movie doesn’t obscure the wonderful job of casting that he did and the Oscar worthy performances. Adams plays Lynne Cheney, given chairwomanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities during Ronald Reagan’s Culture Wars, as the no-nonsense spine who gives Dick his purpose and his marching orders, a partisan loyalist every bit as fierce as her husband. Tyler Perry makes a solid Colin Powell, Bill Camp is all wrong as Gerald Ford.
McKay overreaches as he brings in partisan hack Antonin Scalia as the legal justification of Republican high-handedness, Roger Ailes and Karl Rove for the roles they’d play in the rise of the Right Wing State, and all the rest.
It’s too much to squeeze in, and in truth, it’s too disheartening to think about. A system that’s been rigged for the super rich to do what they want, the will of the people be damned, is not fit for light comedy.
And Bale, Adams, Carell and Rockwell don’t so much leave us in awe at how their characters were able to get us to today, and make us despair at ever being smart enough to see through them and their ilk.
If this is the only consequence these America-breaking goons face for their crimes, I only wish a better puncher than McKay had been raining down the blows upon their heads.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some violent images
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Tyler Perry, Bill Camp, Allison Pill, Lily Rabe
Credits :Written and directed by Adam McKay. An Annapurna release.
Running time: 2:12