War, Dick Cheney and U.S. politics take center stage in “Vice”

C/o Annapurna Pictures

Dick Cheney—48th vice president of the United States, champion of torture, enemy of the Constitution and a man whose approval rating was 13 percent by the time his ostensible boss, George W. Bush, left office—occupies a singular place in history: He was a war profiteer who could start his own wars. As such, he seems less than the ideal subject for a holiday season movie. Or, for that matter, any movie.

Aristotle wasn’t right about everything, but he was pretty good on the mechanics of drama. Likewise, Shakespeare: You do not call the play “Iago,” even if Iago happens to be the most interesting character. And you do not make a villain the “hero” of a piece because you inevitably bestow unintended moral sympathy on the undeserving, never mind perverting your aims. And passion doesn’t get you a pass: The degree to which director Adam McKay obviously despises his subject doesn’t make “Vice” any less of a dramatic misfire. Or any less smug, self-satisfied and morally negligent.

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The degree to which director Adam McKay obviously despises his subject doesn’t make “Vice ” any less of a dramatic misfire.

McKay has been very successful with comedies that called for unbridled stupidity (“Anchorman,” “Step Brothers”). His financial-meltdown movie of 2015, “The Big Short,” was smartly satirical, if a bit too pleased with itself. “Vice,” though, is a something else, including a missed opportunity. There is a story to be told about how men with nothing inside them but a hunger for power rise to the top of many institutions, including the U.S. government, because they are unimpeded by principles. One does not need to share the director’s politics to appreciate that Cheney is portrayed as just such a man by McKay—and his star, Christian Bale—as he weasels his way through the Nixon White House, attaching himself to the sociopathic Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), sidestepping the taint of Watergate and launching a hit-and-miss political career that eventually lands him plum positions in the private sector. And, ultimately, a shot at becoming vice president.

Cheney’s crimes are cataloged (even if some are not strictly criminal), including the misleading of a president and a nation into an unnecessary war; orchestrating the warrant-free surveillance of U.S. citizens; depriving domestic and foreign suspects of their constitutional rights; and promoting the inane theory of the “unitary executive,” which is one of the legal lifebuoys to which President Donald Trump is currently clinging. It is not, in other words, the stuff of comedy. McKay would disagree, of course. But seldom has a film had such a physical effect on this viewer. And not a pleasant one.

Cheney’s crimes are cataloged (even if some are not strictly criminal), including the misleading of a president and a nation into an unnecessary war.

The unrecognizable Christian Bale is uncannily Cheney-like, all belly and jowls, but his performance is mostly an impersonation, one of those immersions in makeup and body fat that Hollywood loves to recognize—and just may come Oscar time. Carell is almost giddily ruthless as Rumsfeld, the only character in “Vice” with fewer scruples than Dick himself (though one should really go back to Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known” and watch the real Rumsfeld obscure the truth). Amy Adams is Lynne Cheney, and it is a thankless role, with the affectations of a Donna Reed and the malignancy of Lady Macbeth. One of McKay’s fantastical gestures, in fact, is an ersatz-Shakespearean exchange between Lynne and Dick in their bedroom, which is, in the end, simply tiresome. Another involves a faux-set of end credits, which arrives mid-movie and pretends to leave the Cheneys in mid-career, out of politics, happy not to inflict any more damage on America. If only.

A third gesture—and the one that best defines the flawed DNA of “Vice”—occurs when Dick turns away from an interviewer’s camera and addresses the viewer directly, explaining in the patented Cheney snarl and growl how he does not care what people think, that he made the country safe, that he did it all for you, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum. It is all delivered as if the speaker actually had principles—in a movie that has been telling you very emphatically, for more than two hours, that he definitely did not.

“Vice” isn’t a dishonest movie, exactly. It just enables dishonesty.

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Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
6 months 3 weeks ago

Dishonest? The movie, the review or both?

Stephen Shore
6 months 3 weeks ago

This will be another movie that the left wing Hollywood elitist use to continue their cultural assault on America. They have won the war already - but they are in "clean up" mode now. They won't rest until they are satisfied that they have converted the country to their "religion".

I have stopped betting against them.

Judith Jordan
6 months 3 weeks ago

We have many industries who damage our health and destroy our environment, but it seems that Hollywood is the only business that conservatives like to put on trial. Hollywood is like any other business…it makes what sells. If it didn’t sell, they would not make it.

I do not need to see a movie to know that Cheney did appalling things. It is hard to believe that anyone who pays any attention does not already know this.

Joan Clancy
6 months 3 weeks ago

Thanks for yet another insightful review by John Anderson. His writings in America almost always offer up a notion or two I hadn't considered. IMO his enjoyable critiques make for a fun read that encourage thinking outside one's own (rigid?) perspective which is, after all, one of the functions of professional reviews.

Christopher McNally
6 months 3 weeks ago

I thought VICE was entertaining, but unfocused. Many flashbacks and flash forwards. And it covered a lot of ground previously covered by Michael Moore. One factoid that some may categorize as part of a "cultural assault on America" is the fact that by the design of Cheney and his aides, the RNC email server was used by the Bush White House for its email communications and more than 20 million emails were casualties of that process. By comparison 30,000 Clinton emails were missing in action from a private Clinton email server. With those kinds of attrition rates, the left is certainly losing the culture war in the Electronic Record Theater.

Terry Kane
6 months 3 weeks ago

Wow! Is "John Anderson" the nom de plume used by David Brock, Sid Blumenthal or some other hyper-Democrat? The venom this guy puts in his poison pen is palpable.
For this disgusting review to appear in a Catholic magazine is astonishing.
One wonders if Cheney were an illegal alien, would the same review be published.
Apparently "John Anderson" does not believe the former Vice President of the United States of America has a spark of divinity.
If the writer decides to stop criticizing movies, he can always get a job on MSNBC, at Media Matters for America or the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Are there no decent editors at America Media?

Todd Witherell
6 months 3 weeks ago

“You are not going to like it when you find out what She thinks about stupid, unjust, and criminal wars” - Fr. Andrew Greeley (of blessed memory)

Jack Feehily
6 months 3 weeks ago

The writer makes assertion after assertion with the certainty of those on the left who regard such things as unassailably true. Cheney is no less a child of God than any of us, and as such is subject to flaws—even bad ones. The Cheney is a monster theme will result in failure at the box office.

Jak Meadows
6 months 2 weeks ago

Amy Adams is Lynne Cheney, and it is a thankless role, with the affectations of a Donna Reed and the malignancy of Lady Macbeth. routerlogin

Eugene Fitzpatrick
6 months 2 weeks ago

That Cheney has a cheering section amongst some of the commentators on this article is a dismal reflection on the warped ethical code that too many Americans use to guide them through life’s passageway.
An average IQ twelve year old can easily discern that Cheney was an ineffable moral degenerate who greatly participated in inflicting so much suffering and sorrow to the planet. Mr. Feehily’s “child of God” and Mr. Kane’s guy with the “spark of divinity” would have blended in well with the gaggle of miscreants that sat in the war crimes trial boxes at Nuremberg.

Mark Langlois
6 months 1 week ago

How is it that this American citizen, living and ‘reachable’ in the U.S.A. is not brought to trial for his horrendous crimes? U.S. citizens are arrested for far less, and incarcerated with much less proof of guilt. Is this a message to the world that in the U.S., if you’re rich and influential, you are positioned in another tier which makes you immune from justice?

Mark Langlois
6 months 1 week ago

How is it that this American citizen, living and ‘reachable’ in the U.S.A. is not brought to trial for his horrendous crimes? U.S. citizens are arrested for far less, and incarcerated with much less proof of guilt. Is this a message to the world that in the U.S., if you’re rich and influential, you are positioned in another tier which makes you immune from justice?

Denise Delurgio
6 months 1 week ago

America Media, and Jesuits themselves, would do well to recognize that fervent, committed Catholics come in red and purple as well as blue. Why review a comedian's biased failure of a film purported to explore the political life of Dick Cheney? The film has no reason to be reviewed on a Catholic site except to give the reviewer an opportunity to exploit his position.

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