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.
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.