While it’s happening, we don’t always recognize life in terms of future historical merit. Time passes and perspective becomes possible. It’s at this point when we can reevaluate the actions and results of those involved. One might call this the benefit of hindsight, but philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Filmmaker Adam McKay has moved on from his sophomoric comedies (Step Brothers, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) to full-bore political satire, first with his “Funny or Die” videos (co-produced with Will Ferrell), then to his searing look at the financial crisis of the mortgage market with The Big Short (for which he won an Oscar for adapted screenplay). Now, we have Vice, which is about the power dynamics within the Bush-Cheney administration…and how a quiet, unassuming insider became the most powerful man in America.
In one of the biggest casting head-scratchers of all-time, Christian Bale takes on the role of Dick Cheney. We are barely one scene in before all doubts are assuaged, and we are reminded yet again why Mr. Bale is one of the most talented and fascinating actors in cinematic history. With the weight gain, the hair, the growling voice (not unlike Bale’s Batman) and the asymmetrical smirk, Bale becomes Cheney on screen and that allows us to focus on the manner in which filmmaker McKay unfolds the events – many of which we remember, even if we were blissfully unaware of the backstory.
Cheney is first seen in 1963 Wyoming as a drunk and somewhat rowdy youngster. The film then bounces the timeline to key events such as Cheney’s time as Donald Rumsfeld’s (Steve Carell) intern/lackey and the 1970s (Bethesda, his being named youngest White House Chief of Staff, Ford’s loss to Carter, and his campaign for Wyoming Congressman). Cheney’s wife Lynne (played by Amy Adams) is portrayed as more ambitious than her husband (at least early on), and in one searing scene, yanks a young Cheney out of his funk and onto the upwardly mobile track. Were the timing 15 years forward, it’s not difficult to imagine Lynne as the rising political star.
The story really gets interesting once George H.W. Bush is elected and Cheney is brought back to D.C. as Secretary of Defense. From this point on, his near subversive quest for power is in overdrive. There are many quotes cautioning to ‘beware the quiet man,’ that fit the Cheney on display here. You’ve likely seen in the trailer where a finger-licking’ George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) chows on barbecue as he offers the VP job to Cheney. Surprisingly, this is one of only two scenes where McKay makes Bush look like a buffoon. If you haven’t figured it out by now, it should be clear that McKay is not one to give the benefit of the doubt here…his mission is to highlight all ludicrous actions of our nation’s leaders during this time.
Supporting work is provided by a deep cast, including Lilly Rabe and Allison Pill as the Cheney daughters (Liz and Mary), Justin Kirk as Scooter Libby, Bill Camp as Gerald Ford, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Tyler Perry as Colin Powell, Eddie Marsan as Paul Wolfowitz, and Don McManus as David Addington. There is also Bob Stephenson as Rush Limbaugh, cameos from Naomi Watts and Alfred Molina, and Jesse Plemons as the narrator, whose true role is held at bay until near the film’s end.
September 11, 2001, brings on a very interesting segment when there is an emergency White House evacuation, and Cheney is whisked into a secure room and appears to overstep his authority…at least that’s how it appears to everyone other than Cheney. He is described as having power “like a ghost,” and it’s this scene and the follow-up discussions about Afghanistan, that McKay believes best exemplifies Cheney’s lust for power, and how ‘right and wrong’ are secondary to him.
Actual clips of Nixon, Reagan, bin Laden, Carter, and Obama are dropped into segments providing a quasi-documentary feel at times. Cheney’s heart issues, the political quandary resulting from his daughter coming out as gay, and the involvement of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and the Koch brothers all play a role here, as does the Unitary Executive Theory and the legal specifics that cause much debate. Also on display is some of the least complimentary eyeglass fashion across 3 decades.
Even though his approach leans pretty far left, filmmaker McKay is to be applauded for a most entertaining look at how our government officials can manipulate policy and public statements, and may even stoop to focus groups in better understanding the views of the American people. Editor Hank Corwin (Oscar-nominated for The Big Short) is a big part of maintaining the quick pace of the film, and the use of fishing as a metaphor somehow works. “America” from West Side Story is a fitting song to end the clever, funny and thought-provoking film and our look at the rare politician who amassed power, while mostly avoiding the publicity that other politicians seek. Watch at your own risk – depending on your politics.