Film Review: Vice

Bureaucratic Brio: The Man Who Would Be Vice President – or Viceroy?

Writer/director Adam McKay’s Vice, an all-star biographical movie about Dick Cheney is among Hollywood’s top 2018 political pictures. It’s utterly uncanny how Christian Bale completely disappears into his role as the former vice president, just as John C. Reilly does as Oliver Hardy in another biopic being released in America during the holiday season, Stan & Ollie. With his bravura performance Bale has Cheney’s look, mannerisms and sound down to perfection and at times, when Bale is onscreen one feels as if he/she is almost watching a documentary or the TV news and not an actor in a feature. How Bale transmogrified himself from playing Batman to fat man Cheney is truly a feat of astounding acting for the ages, reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s star turn in Martin Scorsese’s 1980 Raging Bull.

Vice’s cast portrays a veritable “who’s who” of the Republican elite, from the noxious Nixon era through the disastrous Bush-Cheney regimes. Depicting actual historical figures is tricky, especially in a media-saturated age and since most of these personages are (regrettably) still living (unlike the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis, U.S. troops and others they butchered). In terms of resembling the people they’re portraying Sam Rockwell (who snared the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) also captures not only the outer persona of George W. Bush but the inner self of a man (as Cheney shrewdly surmises onscreen) who is a drunken lout with a tremendous need to prove himself, with catastrophic consequences for humanity when Shrub is enabled by his partner in crime Dick.

Other members of the ensemble are less successful in terms of resembling those they’re incarnating onscreen. Steve Carell doesn’t look much like Congressman then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, but he captures the manic quality of this brash war criminal who mentored and teamed up with the younger Cheney, that scheming Wyoming man on the make. Of course this despicable dynamic duo shared things in common: world class opportunism plus a shrewd capacity for power plays and palace intrigue. Best Supporting Actor Oscar-nommed for 2014’s Foxcatcher for portraying John Du Pont, another real life member of the power elite, former Daily Show correspondent Carell is emerging as a real force on the acting scene, particularly given his lead role in Welcome to Marwen, also released this month.

Although Amy Adams doesn’t look much like Lynne Cheney (Adams is much prettier) she skillfully conveys the former second lady’s shrewish, driven personality that, according to Vice, pushed her husband in his relentless pursuit for power. Cheney was truly a pussy-whipped Dick. Kirk Bovill and Matthew Jacobs somewhat resemble, respectively, Henry Kissinger and Antonin Scalia.

LisaGay Hamilton doesn’t resemble sleazy Condoleezza Rice in the least and has little to do other than react in utter astonishment at Cheney’s overreaching for power as W.’s National Security Adviser and then his Secretary of State. Rice took over the latter post after the departure of Colin Powell, played by Tyler Perry. He too looks little like the figure being portrayed – considering Perry’s penchant for cross-dressing as Madea, perhaps Tyler should have depicted J. Edgar Hoover in a dress and heels instead.

Bill Camp bears no resemblance to Gerald Ford whatsoever, nor do a host of other thesps in small parts as various GOP apparatchiks such as John Hillner as Bush Sr., Adam Bartley as the Orwellian word slinger Frank Luntz, Eddie Marsan (who’s in Showtime’s great Ray Donovan series) as Paul Wolfowitz, and Justin Kirk as Cheney flunky Scooter Libby. Don McManus plays legal henchman David Addington who finds a cosmic rationale for every norm and law Cheney wants to break, along with his co-conspirator, torture-justifier John Yoo (Paul Yoo).

Kevin Flood, however, does look something like Richard Clarke, the “hair on fire” former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection and Counter-terrorism and the only member of that misbegotten regime who totally failed to protect us from 9/11 withthe decency to publicly apologize. Of course, there’s much more to acting than mere appearances and Bale leads his cast in painting a picture of the essence of his character. He plays Cheney as a power mad, greedy consummate opportunist, a faceless, heartless bureaucrat who always does what’s expedient in terms of his self interest – if not in the national interest. McKay shows, for example, how the Iraq War debacle immensely benefited Halliburton, the multinational energy company Cheney was CEO of.

Making a biopic that appeals to a mass audience can be problematic. As he similarly did in 2015’s The Big Short (for which McKay co-won a screenwriting Oscar and also featured Bale and Carell), McKay pursues a path of disrupting a straightforward docudrama type of narrative with highly filmic forays into satire, speculation, metaphor and more. (An opening disclaimer appears onscreen noting that since so much of Cheney’s covert career has been secretive, it is subject to interpretation – although I suspect that like Oliver Stone, another biopic helmer, McKay did copious research.)

At times McKay’s film form plays with chronological order in order to make his points. Although there is some great acting in Vice it is these cinematic digressions to express McKay’s overall view of Cheney’s duplicitous, treacherous, underhanded personality that wreaked havoc on America and parts of the globe that is the best thing about Vice and what I enjoyed most about it.

The film’s symbolism is resonant. During his heart replacement operation the heart attack-prone Cheney is rather cleverly shown during the surgical procedure to literally have no heart. This visualization of Cheney’s heartlessness is one of cinema’s best uses of pictorial allegory since Michael Corleone and his fellow mobsters sliced a birthday cake with an image of Cuba in the icing to represent cutting up the island so all of the gangsters could get their slice in 1974’s The Godfather: Part II.

McKay also uses Cheney’s fishing expeditions for symbolic purposes, including in the final credit sequence. (BTW, there is another droll credit sequence that appears somewhere around the middle of this two hour and twelve minute tour de force – but don’t be fooled into leaving the theater prematurely. It’s just one of McKay’s numerous humorous asides.)

At times, McKay ventures into the rarified realm of Sergei Eisenstein-style “intellectual montage” that breaks continuity in order to interject and amplify ideas. This is arguably the highest form of filmmaking – although I hasten to add that porn flicks and TV commercials also use this associative audio-visual technique too. But here McKay uses intellectual montage to great advantage to advance his concept of Cheney’s recklessness, etc., that eventually caused cataclysmic outcomes.

There is an interesting storyline regarding the Cheney’s lesbian daughter, Mary (Alison Pill). Lynne and Dick seem to admirably stand by their gay child – that is, until their other daughter, the rabid reactionary, anti-same sex marriage Liz (LilyRabe), decides to run for Wyoming’s U.S. Senate seat…

To paraphrase Laurel & Hardy, the absolutely unnecessary Iraq War is “another fine mess you’ve gotten me into.” Vice lays the blame for that apocalyptic debacle squarely at Cheney’s feet, as opposed to pointing the figure at the CIA, etc., for “faulty intelligence.” (In another small role, Stephen Adly Guirgis is a reasonable lookalike for CIA chief George “Slam Dunk” Tenet.) Just as Cheney and Bush Jr.’s miserable foreign policy encouraged Osama bin Laden to attack the USA – after striking the USS Cole in 2000 the former U.S. ally made it abundantly clear he’d deploy his expert CIA-training by attacking America if Washington didn’t remove its “infidel” troops from Saudi Arabia, where Mecca was located – the Bush regime did nothing to prepare for a possible terrorist strike here at home. But 9/11 gave Cheney, the former Halliburton top banana, the pretext to invade oil rich Iraq, which the movie shows Dick and Rummy had been chomping at the bit to attack all along.

Of course, Saddam Hussein didn’t have those mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Iraq attack was a wild goose chase, although it immeasurably enriched Halliburton, defense contractors and other Bush campaign donors with deep pockets. The United States of America is so uncivilized, so lawless, that the Cheney/Bush regime was allowed to act with total impunity. There have been no war crime tribunals a la Nuremberg for Cheney and his fellow war criminals, who illegally, unprovoked by Saddam, unleashed a mass murder in the Middle East and beyond that we, Iraqis and countless others are still paying for.

But in the court of public opinion they took a drubbing. Pigs like Cheney and Bush aren’t solely motivated by greed or lust of power – they are obsessed with their stature and how others perceive them. By subjecting them to ridicule, Adam McKay is holding these mass murderers accountable for their massive, incalculable crimes against humanity in terms of how these status conscious renegades are viewed by their fellow man and woman. Although these barbarians lack any insight and despise self reflection, let’s hope that somehow Cheney finds his way into a theater to see Vice – and that it will finally trigger that fatal heart attack he so richly deserves.

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