Updated: Feb 7, 2020
Dick Cheney, a man who rose up through American politics to become the most powerful Vice President we have ever had, is a ripe target for a biopic. Since he was involved in so many major events and influenced policy in such a significant way, there is a ton of material a filmmaker could use to tell his story. The filmmaker that chose to do so is director/writer/producer Adam McKay, who made a bunch of Will Ferrell comedies before directing/co-writing The Big Short, a satirical drama about the 2005 US housing crisis. That movie won an Oscar in 2016 for Best Adapted Screenplay and was nominated for four others, including Best Picture, Director and Supporting Actor for Christian Bale.
McKay uses a very similar style to direct Vice, starring Bale as Dick Cheney. It is an ambitious production, with some clever touches and a really strong cast. It may have as much awards success as The Big Short. But I do not think it is as good a movie. The acting is effective and there are a few creative gags. However, the pacing is off and it lacks real insight into its story. It is a promising idea that comes off as a bit of a disappointment.
Vice (128 minutes, plus a mid-credits scene) follows Cheney from his start in politics through his run as VP. The focus is on his family life, specifically his relationship with his wife, and his career in Washington. The political material paints him as a fairly one-dimensional power-hungry monster, who does not care what impact his decisions have as long as he is winning. The family stuff has slightly more depth. In those scenes, he gets to be a husband and father instead of merely a politician. There are moments that threaten to provide him with complexity, but McKay largely fails to follow up on them. That is too bad because the cast is outstanding and they definitely could have risen to the occasion.
Christian Bale gives his usual transformative performance as Cheney. He put on a lot of weight and adopted Cheney’s mannerisms and speech patterns. Bale is one of those actors who embodies more than he acts. No two of his characters are the same. He is very good at what he does. He creates an intriguing portrait of a man who was driven enough to go from nothing to the most powerful man in Washington. Vice does not analyze his journey so, despite Bale’s efforts, he remains an enigma throughout.
The supporting cast is just as impressive, playing characters just as underdeveloped. It is led by Amy Adams as Cheney’s wife, Lynne. She does not want to be married to a failure, so she pushes her husband to be the best he can be. According to this screenplay, Lynne was as ruthless as her husband. That is basically all I learned about her. It is similar for Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Jesse Plemons and Justin Kirk. None of them get much to work with. Sam Rockwell, one of the best actors currently working, is stuck with a caricature of George W. Bush. He plays him pretty well, to little avail.
The performance I enjoyed the most was Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s mentor in scheming. Rumsfeld wants control, but he likes Cheney and takes pride in molding him in his own image. It is a more layered role that Carell is really able to cut loose in. This is his third movie in the last couple of months, after Beautiful Boy and Welcome to Marwen. All three were disappointments, but he was good in all of them, playing heavy drama, light drama and now satire. This is the best of those performances. He seems to have understood what McKay was trying to accomplish better than McKay did.
The Big Short told a complicated story in a way that made it easy to digest. Vice tells a complicated story in a way that strips away its complexity. Its narrative is mostly linear, yet it is kind of confusing. Events occur without setup. Cheney just seems to do things. There is little explanation for his choices. That is where the lack of insight comes in. However, it does do some other things right. The biggest is obviously the casting, but there is also success in relating the past with what is happening today, plus a few instances where McKay’s comedic sensibilities actually pay off. Unfortunately, this is a case where satire may not have been the best strategy. It takes a screenplay with not enough substance and piles so much style on it that it buries any point McKay might have had.
2¾ out of 5
Christian Bale as Dick Cheney
Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney
Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld
Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush
Alison Pill as Mary Cheney
Lily Rabe as Liz Cheney
Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby
Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz
Jesse Plemons as Kurt
Don McManus as David Addington
Directed and Written by Adam McKay