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Stellar cast shines in ‘Vice’ but not much else in Dick Cheney bio-drama

 By Ryen Thomas

December 25, 2018

This holiday season you’ll find Vice crammed among the year’s most hyped-up spectacles. The film covers the political rise of former US Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale), but Vice is really more about the political bias of its director, Adam McKay.

Like McKay’s previous film, The Big Short, Vice is real deal Oscar bait that employs a briskly paced non-linear structure, striving to point out the sins of this century’s first decade. Ever heard of the “Unitary Executive theory”? You’ll learn a lot about that, the rise of Fox News, and so much DC insider lingo that you’ll feel like this is Schoolhouse Rock! but for grown ups.

(From L to R) Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Christian Bale as Dick Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, and Andrea Wright as Laura Bush. Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

In real life, Cheney jumped in and out of the public spotlight, influenced great men of power, pushed the bounds of political authority, and yet remained an unexposed shadow. A mystery waiting to be unraveled. McKay admits to there being “no bread crumbs” to helping him understand Cheney and what truly conspired behind closed doors. So instead of a proper investigation, we get a film unapologetically loaded with what the filmmaker believes about him.

There’s an early scene when Cheney asks Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), “What do we believe?” and instead of getting an introspective moment that digs deep into what the characters stand for, Rumsfeld quickly laughs at the question, essentially confirming the suspicion that politicians don’t really believe, care or stand for anything. Like a quiet raging storm, Cheney is depicted as a unsuspectedly shrewd villain with no moral compass. The film continually throws fishing imagery in our face to make it clear that his main goals are to lure in men he wants to manipulate, find laws he can exploit, and quietly take over the world from behind the scenes. Forget an exploration of why he wants to take over the world; he and his friends are reduced to one note.

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld. Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

The best part of the movie is the cast that makes up for McKay’s narrative. George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), Colin Powell (Tyler Perry), and Condoleezza Rice (Lisa Gay Hamilton) are brought to the big screen with surprising life. There are no impersonations, despite moments that make me wonder whether or not Carell is making fun of Rumsfeld.

Bale is known to go all out, even to dangerous lengths for roles, and he doesn’t hold back here. He completely transforms into the VP physically, avoiding a fat suit for real weight, and wearing the famous grimace and poker face that some may recognize from State of the Union addresses. But the sparkle in Bale’s eyes tell us that he’s having a great time in front of the camera.

Tyler Perry stars as Colin Powell courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Cheney’s love for his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) thankfully provides an inkling of quirky humanity, like when they express their love for each other and Shakespeare at the same time. We first meet Lynne scolding a young Cheney who’s drunk, deadbeat, and appears to have nothing to live for. She gives him an ultimatum that serves as the catalyst for him to change his ways and trade in an addiction for booze to political power. Adams disappears into the role as Lynne, portraying her as an ambitious woman so stifled by her time period that she must live out her dreams through her husband. At one event, Lynne proudly whispers into her husband’s ears: “Half the people in this room love us. The other half fears us.” Forget Lynne taking the time to ask, “Why do they hate us?” She doesn’t care, just as long as she and her husband aren’t deadbeats.

Outside of their relationship, however, the film wobbles and wanders to find a proper way to conclude itself. That’s understable, given that we don’t have a real life conclusion to the tragic events the movie makes us relive. We’re reminded of the moments that divided us and put our country into perpetual crisis mode, and yet there’s no attempt to help us understand the grand purpose behind the questionable and nightmarish choices Cheney made. Was he trying to promote American exceptionalism? Is he remorseful or satisfied with the storm he helped to stir up?

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney. Courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Who cares about motivation? Definitely not Cheney in the film and probably in real life. At least, that’s what the director wants to us to think. The notion of Cheney being a bad dude is sealed when we get the kind of closing moment House of Cards’ Frank Underwood would be proud of. For many (like myself), Cheney is on the same pedestal with the evil emperor from Star Wars. However, we all could have appreciated a smarter biopic that challenges us to see another side of its subject. Instead,Vice unapologetically confirms the bias.

So if you want to see exceptional performances, not miss out during award season, or if you’re okay with your biopics that lean closer to a Michael Moore documentaries, then go see Vice. Otherwise, they are cheaper ways to feel outraged or safe in your echo chamber. Stay home and just turn on the news because you can do that without spending $10 bucks for a movie ticket.

Star Rating: 3 out of 5

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