Released: 25th January 2019
Directed By: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell
Reviewed By: Philip Price
Doing what is right is boring. Following the rules is boring. Doing what is wrong is entertaining. Bending and breaking the rules is amusing. Movies should not be made about politicians, but given most politicians don’t do the right thing rather often and tend to break and bend the rules to fit their own needs and agenda as frequently as they need to it is no surprise there are plenty of television shows and movies based around and on political figures. There is a brief scene in Adam McKay’s latest film, Vice, based around the life of Vice President Dick Cheney where he is teaching one of his daughter’s how to fish and she asks if the trick of baiting the fish with a live worm is right or wrong-you know, morally. Cheney replies that, “It’s not right or wrong, it’s just fishing.” His daughter admits to not wanting to hurt the worm, but her father summarizes his justification for the sport by stating, “You find out what they want and you use it to catch them. The family gets to eat.” It is with this perspective that Cheney seemed to approach his political career as well-it also exemplifies how every single line and aspect of McKay’s film is integral to the portrait the writer and filmmaker is painting. “It’s not right or wrong, it’s just what needs to be done.” What McKay is really exploring through Vice though, is this idea of how does a man go on to become who he is? The film describes life as being a series of events that contain certain moments that are so delicate, that they are akin to a stack of teacups with a saucer in between each where-at any moment-one could fall in any direction and change the course of the future forever. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know the future and which way things will fall, but while McKay is keen to note that Cheney more or less fell into the roles he would eventually allow to define the purpose of his life largely due to the involvement of his wife, what he seems particularly interested in dissecting is how Cheney came to view the job of serving the country and how he interpreted that responsibility as it becomes very clear that Cheney and his staff were experts at interpreting things strictly in the way they wanted and in what would benefit their cause best. What McKay is truly attempting to do is bring about a case concerning how Cheney had his hands in so many pies, either for reasons of his own agenda or for what he truly thought was best for the country (it’s hard to tell from one issue to the next), and that the result of these meddling’s effectively changed the course of history. McKay wants the viewer to not only read that tagline that could easily be misconstrued as a piece of hyperbole and understand it, but to grasp it and take to heart; to truly understand the ramifications of this single man’s actions in determining the fate of millions upon millions of other people’s lives.
Following Cheney’s desire to become the most powerful Vice President in America’s history (which doesn’t occur until late in life when the opportunity presents itself), Vice intercuts different periods of the man’s life so as to show where he came from and how certain events shaped where he would go. The “how” is in the meaning we elicit from these editing choices and like with McKay’s The Big Short, the filmmaker bucks traditional structure and style techniques to bring us his own, unfiltered version of if not exactly how things actually played out at least the best attempt at encapsulating the feelings that might have been experienced in the given situations. Beginning in Wyoming in 1963 insight is gained from the get-go as we’re seemingly meant to be surprised by the fact Cheney was not always the “brass tacks” kind of guy he portrayed himself as in the White House (keep in mind, my review is written from the perspective of someone who was fourteen when George W. was first elected President). Cheney was a middling student who only got into Yale because his girlfriend and future wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), pulled some strings to get him there, but even then he didn’t take school serious enough to actually go to class and was kicked out and resorted to hanging telephone wire for the state until Lynne gave him a wake-up call after she had to bail him out of jail for the second time. McKay starts here, but in between these early instances we see the opposite end of the spectrum as Cheney is serving as the Vice President of the U.S. on the day of the worst terror attack to ever hit American soil. The juxtaposition in who Cheney was and who he obviously becomes is intended to rope us into this journey and for a viewer who was unaware of the silent and surly-seeming bureaucrat that served under Bush Jr. for eight years I was hooked. McKay has a way of crafting what might seem like boring or overly-complicated subject matters into streamlined pieces of entertainment that function as such largely because of the way he and editor Hank Corwin piece them together. McKay’s screenplays are to be acknowledged as well given the detoured tangents the filmmaker will take in order to fully exercise a point or creatively convey an idea that might otherwise be too dense or uninteresting to deliver solely through a scene of exposition. Furthermore, McKay and co. choose a framing device in the film that deals with a narrator whose credibility can’t really be justified as more of what he says than not would have had to have come from research material limited to what was available to any average civilian, but while the reliance of this narrator sometimes comes into question, the idea of this kindred connection is an ambitious if not necessarily successfully executed one.
And so, to illustrate what kind of man Cheney was-whether fair or not-but due to Cheney’s intense sense of privacy, McKay had no choice but to and takes certain liberties with the material so as to make his point in both as clever and clean a way as possible. It is in these instances that the film not only separates itself from ilk of the same genre, but that it becomes a bold movie that isn’t so much following its own agenda, but leaning on the facts McKay has to work with to elicit this fascinating story of a man completely motivated by his wife-who would have likely had a pretty average life had he not married who he married in a time when women were expected to be the keepers of domesticity-who comes to be motivated not necessarily by a need for power, but something a little less generic than this-a sense of control more so than power, a sense of utilizing this position of the Presidency for the kind of power he felt the role was entitled to and further, wanting to surround himself with family and friends who he believed he could trust with such power and responsibility. Vice makes it very clear that Cheney was not this kind of naturally insidious creature, but that he did care about these public servant positions and the responsibilities that came with them, but it doesn’t go without noting that he also found it satisfying to be able to play in this landscape in a way that fed this desire to constantly prove he’d found something he was genuinely good at. More than showing us Cheney’s early missteps to show he in fact had these missteps or took some early hits though, McKay shows us this part of his subject’s life so as to emphasize the reasons why Cheney found it so hard to let go once he found this thing he excelled at. There is a certain element in me that believes there are politicians who truly hope to effect change in the world as well as being those who set a personal goal for themselves and simply enjoy playing whatever angle it takes to reach their desired endgame. There is both risk and reward in this and it is no doubt exhilarating, but this could be done outside the political arena; it just so happens this is where Cheney found his calling and continued to play out different scenarios for years and years. I mean, they call it the “political arena” for a reason, right? To the point of what McKay does with his film to create this hyper-reality around what might be considered by some a rather mundane world is to say that, in instances when there is no way of knowing how certain conversations went, but we understand that such conversations must have occurred that instead of trying to make up what might have been the closest version of reality McKay instead plays up the idea that, in our minds, such a turning point in the characters’ lives must have felt like a big turning point in their lives and ups the drama of it by having Christian Bale and Amy Adams, who portray the former Vice President and his wife, play the scene as if they were delivering Shakespearean soliloquies.
There’s truly so much to unpack with Vice that it feels after three lengthy paragraphs I’ve only scratched the surface of covering what is included in McKay’s ambition. Maybe my favorite thing about the film though, is the frankness with which Bale’s Cheney comprehends and then addresses the fact he is having the multiple heart attacks he experiences throughout his lifetime. Never does it play these well-known facets for anything other than acknowledging they happened and Bale, in all his transformative glory, shines most when he plays the character as straight and narrow as Cheney wanted people to perceive him to be. There is a great scene, and another example of McKay’s inventiveness, that exemplifies Cheney’s ability to make even the most outlandish ideas seem appealing that is comedic gold; revolving around a puppet joke in Gerald Ford’s (Bill Camp) oval office the bit rallies against the dry mentality Cheney naturally possessed. Adams’ is equally as impressive as her co-star in that without Lynne Cheney there would be no Dick Cheney; Lynne didn’t have the options many women have today and so she stood beside her man (not behind him), helping she and him ascend into the most elite of the elite-accomplishing her own many ambitions along the way. Both Sam Rockwell and especially Steve Carell (in his fourth collaboration with McKay) are also afforded plenty of time to shine as George W. and two-time Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, respectfully. One can venture to guess how fun Rockwell’s interpretation of Bush Jr. is, but it is the revelation of the kind of scoundrel Rumsfeld was and how his unprofessional temperament and abrasive attitude make him endearing despite himself. This, coupled with the fact Carell simply understands how to play McKay’s material and deliver the type of comedy McKay writes, elevates Carell’s performance to a stand-out. The thing about McKay (a staunch liberal) and his movie though, is that it may very well misjudge those who have differing views than his own; this audience McKay is no doubt hoping might take something away from the experience of watching Vice (if they watch it at all) is more likely to be offended by Lynne saying “God damnit” than they will gawk at the fact Cheney was a dropout and a drunk-these things will only make him more “relatable” for shortcomings are only shortcomings if the person’s opinions differ-otherwise, such shortcomings are just endearing. That Cheney utilized Fox News in order to squash action on global warming, get tax cuts for the super-rich, and gut regulations for massive corporations will only be viewed as smart rather than smarmy.
If this is beginning to sound like a hatchet job understand that it is not and that it does in fact shine just as much of a light on Cheney’s admirable qualities as it does his shortcomings-however few McKay might believe those to be. For instance, Cheney clearly loved both of his daughters, Mary (Alison Pill) and Liz (Lily Rabe), very much and the film delivers a well-rounded picture of him as a parent. The caveat to this story that Vice takes into consideration fairly heavily is that Mary is gay and because of this and because of the Republican party’s general attitude toward homosexuality and more specifically-gay marriage-that Cheney ultimately refused to do anything politically to shed a negative light on his daughter. This very much communicates a sense of compassion in that he will not sacrifice the happiness of his daughter for the advancement of his career (a difficult thing to do for a man who knows how hard he’s worked to not only be good at something, but successful at that something as well). The reveal of Mary’s sexual preference comes in a scene after Cheney first observes George W. at a White House party during the Reagan administration where he comments that, “there is too much unconditional love there” and then discusses his odds of winning the position of the President in the future with Lynne. The revelation that his daughter is gay, of course, would make things very hard for Cheney to get elected given his opponent would undoubtedly go after Mary. I realize that’s repeated information, but it seems to warrant stressing. This leads to a montage of sorts where McKay sets up a fake ending of “what ifs” with false text cards and all that contain information around what could or might have been had George W. not reared his head and opened the option of allowing Cheney back into politics once more. It’s a fun little moment that almost takes you out of the movie, but when the impact of it hits-this impact that, had Bush not come a calling, that so much of what has shaped our present social and political climate might be different-it really hits. As previously stated, McKay uses montage to convey the cause and effect of Cheney’s actions, but never is this more clear than in the final, culminating moment when Cheney is having open heart surgery as is intercut with Liz running for one of Wyoming’s two senate seats where he’s ultimately the one to make a call that will see the chained legacy of power continue. It is a heartbreaking moment to conclude ones film with, but it finalizes an opinion on what the writer/director ultimately felt was more valuable to Cheney-maintaining control in a position of power. Cheney may have implemented a “soft-touch” approach in his political dealings so as to have others do his bidding for him while laying the groundwork through them and being present in as many aspects of the administration as possible, but McKay does the opposite with Vice – he’s still present in every aspect, but it’s clear to anyone paying attention that it’s his fingerprints all over the film; fingerprints that allow the film to play as a provocative, thoughtful, and all-around entertaining portrait of one of the most influential men to ever exist in American politics.