Director Adam McKay made the jump from silly comedies to more socially relevant and political comedies that work to teach the viewer things with The Big Short. His follow-up is Vice, a biopic about former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Christian Bale stars as Cheney, and unsurprisingly he embodies Cheney well enough that there are shots where the audience might be forgiven in thinking it might be footage of the real Cheney. After a brief look into Cheney’s drunken escapades as a very young man, he gets a “shape up or else” lecture from his sweetheart Lynne (Amy Adams), and that somehow leads Dick into politics. From there, after a mentorship under a congressman named Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), he begins a meteoric rise in power that ends with his more or less running the entire government as Vice President.
Bale is fantastic, but that’s not shocking. Adams is likewise great embodying the Cheney I always felt was a lot more intense when she gets that steely look in her eye and tells Dick what’s what. McKay’s script may imply she was the real impulse to power largely because Dick doesn’t say what he wants or even what he believes. From there, McKay points to Cheney being at least indirectly responsible for much of what is wrong in the world. Why doesn’t anyone care? McKay speculates it may be because most Americans are working longer hours for less pay and then are too distracted with pop culture to do much about it. This is all told to us by Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a middle class man who acts as a narrator for the movie. Why Kurt? The answer comes near the end of the movie.
Now, much like The Big Short, McKay uses a lot of odd cutaways, recognizable faces in small roles, and cinematic metaphor to make his points. He has a clear political perspective, and despite a scene here or there makes the Cheneys out to be something like modern day supervillains. Much of it comes down to the political theory that, once Dick hears about it, he follows to its natural conclusion. After that, all the Cheneys care about is power. Given the odd structure, the movie doesn’t always flow like a normal biography, and Bale’s final monologue sounds like the closest to a defense for everything Cheney has done in the course of the movie from the moment Lynne gave him that ultimatum in the beginning of the movie. Given the real Cheney’s overall secrecy, that may be understandable. Dick Cheney didn’t write a memoir, he doesn’t talk much about himself in public or possibly even in private, and the movie itself even admits that the makers just plain don’t know much about the movie’s subject. He’s a mystery even here. It seems he wants power to do…what exactly?
A part of me wonders why this movie came out now. Cheney has been out of power for over a decade, and in our current political climate, his name doesn’t come up much. He’s slipped back into something like political obscurity. Many of McKay’s points don’t sound new. Something like this may have been more relevant a few years ago. The issues left-leaning people have with the GOP now has passed the Cheney style by in favor of Trumpism, and Trumpism isn’t the sort of ideology Cheney seemed to fight for or the style he would fight for it with, even as Cheney’s efforts to increase the power of the presidency have both given more powers not just to Cheney’s old boss George W. Bush, but his two successors as well. The end result is Vice is a lively, well-acted sort of movie with questionable relevancy. Was Cheney really responsible for the laundry list of things McKay suggests he had a hand in, or was he just a a witness to that time that took advantage of the reigning political climate? That’s a debate for somewhere else. 8.5 out of 10 closing credit psyche outs.