What’s left to be said about Dick Cheney? When a man whose four decades in public life are known deceit, mistrust, and avarice he practiced – and all the pain, suffering, and dread he inflicted around the world – is a friendly and slightly-barbed breeze through his personal history the appropriate treatment?
The 46th vice president of the United States is remembered in many quarters as one of the great monsters of our country’s recent history. Cheney never posed the shrieking, frontal assault like a Joseph McCarthy or our current president, or the schizophrenic implosions of Nixon. Cheney’s impact is much more insidious: a career of influence-peddling and ladder-climbing, schemes to consolidate power, and a nearly monastic commitment to opacity.
Vice, made properly, would be a horror show. Instead, Adam McKay’s follow-up to 2015’s excellent and still-relevant The Big Short leans too hard on its stylistic flairs and saves its hardest punches for the viewer. There are gags abound, fourth-wall breakdowns, and constant reconstructions of Cheney’s (Christian Bale) most notorious deeds. But the film comes off as simultaneously under-polished and overcooked.
To be fair, McKay loathes his subject. Vice is squarely aimed at the Cheney-haters-turned-#
Much of that plays out in the form of McKay’s attempting to recreate the tricks that worked so well for The Big Short falling flat here. In his Oscar-winning explanation of the 2000s financial meltdown, McKay used unexpected celebrity cameos (Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez, and Richard Thaler) to cleverly explain complex Wall Street swindles to the vast majority of viewers who lacked advanced economic and business degrees.
In Vice, we get Naomi Watts as a news reader and Jesse Plemons as an average American man interrupting the narrative with unnecessary explanations. Surely, we don’t need extra monologues to know that Dick Cheney was a powerful, dangerous, and secretive force in U.S. policy. The upshot is that the narrative scenes feel more like sketches rather than a cohesive tale, while the other active players in this story are improperly diminished.
Steve Carrell’s turn as Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s early mentor in bureaucratic treachery and eventual partner in warmongering, has huge gaps. Their first meeting suggests a glimpse at the great-man theory of history from the villains’ side. But Carrell disappears for such long stretches that when it comes time for the 2003 Iraq invasion, he’s become more of an evil Michael Scott, selling bloodshed instead of paper, but just as doddering and ineffective.
George W. Bush winds up as little more than a bit player, too, and despite Sam Rockwell’s skill for playing good ol’ boys who really aren’t that good, Vice’s W. isn’t much different from the dumb Texan promised in the trailers. Rather than a real character, it’s Rockwell’s take on Will Ferrell’s take on the 43rd president (which was written by McKay).
There are a few bits of Vice to admire. Bale, once again proving himself the current film era’s most methodical of Method actors, disappears into Cheney’s body through uncanny prosthetics, an actual 45-pound weight gain, and a pitch-perfect affectation of the real man’s withholding growl. Put in the proper context, he’d be one of the great villains of political cinema.
Amy Adams is just as solid playing Lynne Cheney as her husband’s partner-in-schemes, making sure he stays on the straight-and-narrow path toward shadowy domination. And there are moments of genuine emotion, particularly Dick and Liz’s support of younger daughter, Mary (Allison Pill), coming out as lesbian, as well as the later betrayal when elder daughter Liz makes a congressional run of her own.
Yet even in those humanizing moments, McKay can’t resist his worst urges. A much-talked-about scene in which the Cheneys’ dialogue sink into faux-Shakespearean stanzas is as ridiculous as you think. A fake ending when the movie’s halfway over lands like an insult.
Those moments, and others, are all of a piece with why McKay’s mission to chase his last film fails on a character study of Dick Cheney. The reminders and explanations are not needed. While many of the events of Vice are just as recent as those in The Big Short, their legacies are not as byzantine.
But McKay fashions himself a jester of history, and in contemplating Vice I was reminded of an interview the real Cheney gave a few days after 9/11, in which he said the United States would have to work “the dark side.” That’s where Vice could have gone, and should have gone, too.