“I think the record speaks for itself.” — Dick Cheney
Vice is a strange mix, with a theme that comes across as a Marvel villain origin story, done in the style of a docu-drama. It has been described as a comedy, but its occasional humour only emphasises the darkness of the surrounding material, the way striking a match might accentuate the darkness of the surrounding forest. It outlines the personal and professional life of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, for most of his career a seemingly minor background character in the American political drama, but in fact, as the film tries to make clear, a powerful if hidden influence, and possibly responsible for much of the US government’s current direction. Compared by some political pundits to Darth Vader, Cheney is the man who quietly promoted significant events and concepts that have altered America’s political direction: the Iraq War; the defense of torture (slyly renamed enhanced interrogation); the deliberate distortion of information; the increase on centralised power in the US government.
Writer/director Adam McKay turned out a series of fairly silly comedies (Anchorman, Step-Brothers) before achieving his best work, The Big Short, in 2015. A dramatisation of the American financial disaster of 2008, and the greed and corruption that was its direct cause, The Big Short successfully combines outrage and laughter and manages to explain incredibly dry economic principles both clearly and entertainingly. A similar approach is used again in Vice, and many of The Big Short’s unusual techniques – the explanatory digressions, the periodic breaking of the fourth wall, and the satirical details incorporated into the set – are easy to recognise. Unfortunately, they are used less effectively and less entertainingly in Vice.
Cheney is played, with the help of some extensive makeup, by Christian Bale with an accuracy that is almost eerie, successfully combining his outward soft-spoken folksiness with a contrasting ruthless and amoral approach to politics in a typically brilliant performance. Bale manages to capture both Cheney’s qualities as an affectionate and devoted husband and father, and the steely resolve and absence of sympathy in his professional life, without giving the impression of a man divided. The film begins not with the start of Cheney’s political career, but years earlier, as a Casper, Wyoming city worker with little ambition, when his wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), confronts him over his heavy drinking and aimless lifestyle. Taking her reproach to heart, he initiates a serious effort to make something of himself, and through a series of lucky encounters and a bit of strategy, eventually finds himself working at the lower levels of the federal government. This introductory material seems ill-advised; Cheney’s life prior to politics is of little interest to the audience, and the introduction of characters and their interrelationships could easily have been managed without the lengthy backstory. Eventually, however, we find Cheney rising in the ranks, and things begin to get interesting.
Cheney’s political development is assisted along the way by other significant figures who moulded his personal philosophy, taking his personal ambition to a new and dangerous level. A mentor of Cheney’s for many years was Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), Secretary of Defense under two presidents, who first assisted Cheney’s entry into the White House, and whose cynical opportunism guided Cheney’s approach to his future career. Equally influential were encounters with political theorists who were developing the Unitary Executive Theory, a political doctrine which greatly increases the legitimate powers of the president, hypothetically to the point of absolute dictator. Cheney’s interest in this theory and his application of it in his career arises repeatedly.
The documentary-like film is narrated and held together by a recurring Everyman character named Kurt (Jesse Plemons), one designed in precisely the same manner as the similar character in A Man For All Seasons: an individual who addresses the audience directly, in the changing guise of multiple minor background characters. In addition to providing the voice-over commentary, the narrator periodically appears on screen as an insignificant person in Cheney’s America, as a man jogging past Cheney’s house, as one of the soldiers in the Iraq War, and at one point as the anonymous donor of Cheney’s transplanted heart. The narrator explains political decisions, points out the significance of events as they occur, and reminds viewers of what they eventually led to. It is an indispensable part of a film which deals with American politics not only in great detail, but ranging over several decades. The interpretation of these legal and political developments is aided, as in The Big Short, by visual aids of various kinds. When, for example, it becomes difficult to keep track of the people in Cheney’s professional circle, Cheney’s discussion of which politicians to keep and which to deviously eliminate is illustrated by a small model White House, in which real people are represented by tiny board game figures moved about by human hands, each accordingly set in place beside Cheney as allies, moved aside to occupy a more minor position, or literally knocked over to indicate the imminent destruction of their careers by Cheney’s machinations.
As Cheney moves inexorably upward, ultimately to the office of Vice President, where he quietly manoeuvres himself into the position of de facto leader, the changes he makes in American politics add up, revealing the sources of many current and sinister developments. We find the origins of openly and deliberately misleading news reports in the service of one political party, which are now a regular feature in American journalism; the expanding of the president’s and vice-president’s range of powers; the increasing use of disinformation for political ends. The connection, or lack of legitimate connection, between the ‘9/11’ bombings and the Iraq War is made clear by showing the backroom thinking that went into it. We also see the very beginnings of the rigid partisan divide that developed post-Cheney – something which is jokingly remarked on in a brief mid-credits additional scene, in which a political focus group breaks out of the film’s universe and into real life to comment on the unacceptable ‘liberal bias’ of the film itself.
Vice’s downfall may be the scriptwriter’s fascination with the subject matter and his resulting indignation, leading him to neglect the promised humour, and even overlook the film’s structure, making the plotline hard to follow at times. More time is allotted to both Cheney’s family life, and to fairly minute details of American politics than is either necessary or helpful. The development of various forms of corruption within the American government, and Dick Cheney’s place in it, from the notorious Nixon administration through that of George W Bush, is assumed to make the film worth watching for its own sake. Unlike The Big Short, which is always amusing and watchable in spite of its outwardly dull and incomprehensible subject matter, Vice neglects the satire which would keep the film afloat. Its forays into comedy often seem forced and out of place, and in some cases seem to be included out of a sense of obligation – most notably a silly aside in which Cheney’s political discussion with his wife is translated into mock-Shakespearean dialogue. McKay tries gamely to sustain the film’s identity as a comedy rather than a straightforward documentary, but clearly, his heart is not in it.
It would take more than these flaws to make Vice a truly bad movie. For one thing, the subject matter, convoluted though it may be, has a genuine interest, revealing as it does the roots of many of the more serious problems in current American politics. For another, the all-star ensemble cast is well chosen and, in spite of the feeling of watching celebrity impressionists do political figures of the past, are all very good. Steve Carell captures the frank ambition and casual ruthlessness of Donald Rumsfeld perfectly. Amy Adams’ intense portrayal of Lynne Cheney is a scary mix of traditional feminine charm and relentless, driven ambition by proxy. Sam Rockwell’s slightly caricatured version of a hapless George W Bush, running for president mainly to belatedly win his father’s approval, provides, on its own, both humour and silent commentary on the state of the government. Tyler Perry gives a sad and serious take on Secretary of State Colin Powell, as a basically honest man overwhelmed and compromised by the moral relativism surrounding him. And finally, the film’s satirical content, although inadequate, is at times effective.
The film does work well as a biography of a shadowy figure who managed to remake American politics; and manages to get across the key conflict during those key decades, between supporters of conventional (seen as ‘honest’ and ‘democratic’) US government, and those pushing for a centralized power mutually supporting and supported by the wealthy, especially by corporate entities. Given McKay’s apparent view that the former group have lost the battle, it may be understandable that the film fails as a comedy.