Late Movie Review: ‘VICE’

Plot: A fictionalized exploration of the life of one of the most enigmatic politicians of all time, VICE chronicles the life of one Dick Cheney (Christian Bale). After less than stellar origins, Cheney would rise through the ranks of American politics serving as White House Chief of Staff, Secretary of Defense, Congressman, and eventually Vice President of the United States. With his trusted wife Lynne (Amy Adams) at his side, Cheney would eventually become the most powerful Vice President in history…and a notorious public figure.

Review: Political intrigue has been fodder for Hollywood for decades, whether it’s suspense thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate or based on real life events such as All the President’s Men. Biopics of politicians entail their own bevy of complications in that no matter how well intentioned the storytellers may be, there’s always going to be a certain amount of bias that comes into play. I think it’s unavoidable and in any case, moviegoers watch films (mostly) to be entertained. If you want a real life accounting of a political figure there’s plenty of documentaries available.

All of this is a just a long-winded preamble to state that VICE and its director/writer Adam McKay clearly have a very specific spin on the tale of Dick Cheney. If you can accept that fact going into the film you’ll probably find VICE a mostly entertaining cinematic experience. On the other hand if you’re a hardcore right-wing conservative that believes Dick Cheney could do no wrong, well, this may not be the movie for you.

In 2015, director Adam McKay delivered The Big Short, a scathing examination of the housing market collapse that was as horrifying and fascinating as it was hilarious. The Big Short employs some of the most inventive means of breaking the fourth wall using everyone from high profile chefs to pop stars to explain some of the finer points of banking.

With VICE McKay continues that trend. Despite what you may think of the film’s content from a political standpoint, there’s no denying the risks McKay takes as a director. These include such gems as a full-blown Shakespearean moment between Dick and Lynne with requisite dialogue, a false ending in the middle of the movie, and a completely fabricated scene where Cheney proposes a, shall we say, different kind of puppet show in such a calm and reasonable manner, you can’t help but die laughing. In addition, McKay uses narrator Kurt (Jesse Plemons) as a plot device that’s nothing if not unique. All of these narrative choices and their execution work, and work well. It’s just a shame that Hank Corwin’s choppy and frenetic editing (at least in the first act) often undercuts an intriguing narrative and solid cinematography from Greig Fraser.

Talent tends to attract talent and that’s certainly the case with VICE as McKay’s film is full of some of the best actors and actresses working today. Steve Carell reunites with McKay to play former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a role that’s often hilarious but sometimes a little too “mustache twirling” for my liking. Indeed Carell’s portrayal often feels like a caricature rather than a straight up representation of Rumsfeld. The same can be said for Sam Rockwell who takes on the part of former President George W. Bush. As great as Rockwell is, his screen-time is very limited and the performance comes off as a first-rate SNL parody rather than a fully fleshed out character. How he got nominated for an Oscar over Timothee Chalamet is beyond me.

Amy Adams fairs the best of the bunch, delivering yet another stellar performance as Lynne Cheney. Adams performance could have easily devolved into a second-rate Lady Macbeth role, but Adams enlivens the part with depth and nuance. Lynne isn’t someone who pushes Dick because of a desire for power (although she recognizes the significance of power) but rather because she wants to see him succeed. So much so that she even campaigns for her husband after a heart attack to help win an election. Yet she’s also shown to be extremely independent whether it’s as an author or Chair of the National Endowment for Humanities. Through it all Adams conveys Lynne’s absolute devotion and loyalty to her family. I never once doubted that her love for Dick was sincere. She’s like Cersei Lannister except not as violent and ruthless and without the incest.

Speaking of Game of Thrones characters, McKay’s writing of and Christian Bale’s portrayal of Dick Cheney possesses hints of Lord Varys. He’s shown as someone that lurks in the shadows, a man who likes pulling the strings of power rather than being the man in power. And let’s be clear here, Dick Cheney did some pretty unpopular/unsavory things while in office. He helped spearhead “enhanced interrogation” (I.E. torture) techniques, he led the charge to invade Iraq when there was really no provocation to do so, and his old buddies at Halliburton profited well from the Iraq War. The film never shies away from these facts. However, VICE also doesn’t paint Cheney with a matte black Darth Vader brush. He stands behind his gay daughter even when he knows it won’t be politically expedient, he’s a devoted husband and father, and I sincerely believed that HE believed he was doing what was in the best interests of the United States. Whether or not you agree with his choices is another story.

The catalyst for this portrayal is of course Christian Bale, who’s as good as I’ve ever seen him. Like he’s done in the past, Bale physically transforms, packing on the pounds to play the titular lead, employing Cheney’s distinct gravely voice, and capturing the former VP’s sneer to a T. It’s an extremely layered and nuanced performance and quite possibly the best Bale’s ever given. The best testament I can give to Bale’s role is that I never once saw Christian Bale on screen. I saw Dick Cheney. I literally forgot that Christian Bale was playing the role. At this point we are running out of superlatives to describe Christian Bale’s acting prowess. I just hope he sticks around for decades to come because every performance he delivers is a gift to the cinematic world.

While not as narratively consistent and dynamic as The Big Short, Adam McKay’s follow-up feature rarely fails to entertain and a powerhouse performance from Christian Bale makes VICE well worth the watch.

My rating System:

0-1 God Awful Blind Yourself With Acid Bad
2 Straight Garbage
3 Bad
4 Sub Par
5 Average
6 Ok
7 Good
8 Very Good
9 Great
10 A Must See

VICE: 8/10