D: Adam McKay / 132m
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Jesse Plemons, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill, Lily Rabe, Eddie Marsan, Justin Kirk, LisaGay Hamilton, Bill Camp, Don McManus, Shea Whigham, Stephen Adly Guirgis
In 1963, future vice president Dick Cheney (Bale) is working as a lineman because his alcoholism got him kicked out of Yale. Given an ultimatum by his wife, Lynne (Adams), to shape up and make something of his life, Cheney goes into politics, securing an internship at the White House during the Nixon administration. There he works for Nixon’s economic advisor Donald Rumsfeld (Carell). The two become friends (of a sort) and as the years pass, they both fall in and out of favour with the ruling elite, until during the Clinton era, Cheney becomes CEO of Halliburton, and Rumsfeld holds a variety of positions in the private sector. When he’s asked to be the running mate of George W. Bush (Rockwell) when Bush runs for president, Cheney sees an opportunity to occupy a unique position of power. But it’s in the wake of the terrorist attacks that occurred on 9/11 that Cheney sees his ambition begin to come to fruition. Without recourse to just cause, and ignoring his own intelligence agencies, Cheney orchestrates an unnecessary war in Iraq…
Although it’s perfectly well made, and intelligently constructed, Adam McKay’s foray into US politics lacks the urgency of his previous outing, The Big Short (2015), and the impact, with much of what we know about Cheney and his unrepentant manipulation of the facts post-9/11, still fresh in our memories. And it’s hard to be outraged by what Cheney did when the current incumbent of the White House abuses his position so appallingly (and deliberately), and on an almost daily basis. This leaves Vice at a bit of a disadvantage, with McKay’s screenplay laying it all out for us, but in a way that doesn’t feel fresh or surprising, but rather more like reportage. The facts are there, but the emotion isn’t, and this leaves the viewer in an awkward position: working out how to engage with a movie that should be hitting home quite forcefully, but which settles instead for telling its story too matter-of-factly for its own good (it doesn’t help that McKay lumbers his movie with having to stop and explain things such as the unitary executive theory… not the most exciting of topics). There’s also the hint of a longer movie as well, with incidents such as the Valerie Plame affair, and the accidental shooting of Harry Whittington, added to the narrative but ultimately carrying little or no dramatic weight.
And we never get to know Cheney the man, or his motives. Played with a marked reticence that makes Cheney look like a less amiable Chevy Chase, Bale is physically intimidating but often reduced to uttering grunts instead of sentences, and looking disinterested or dismissive. Cheney may have been a ruthless, calculating politician post-9/11, but a lot of the time he just looks like your average grumpy grandpa. Even the one good thing that Cheney did – retiring from public life in order to shield his daughter, Mary (Pill), from media scrutiny over being a lesbian – is tarnished by his later actions in supporting the political ambitions of his other daughter, Liz (Rabe). Rare moments such as these make Cheney appear more recognisably human, and not the unknowable cypher he is the rest of the time. All in all, it’s still a good performance from Bale, but it’s the likes of Adams and Plemons (as a fictional Iraq War veteran with an unlikely tie to Cheney) who make the material resonate more. Again, it’s intelligently constructed, and McKay sprinkles the narrative with some caustic humour to leaven the gloom, while DoP Greig Fraser ensures the sense of dirty deeds carried out behind closed doors is portrayed through tight close ups and the use of shadowy lighting. It’s a movie that speaks plainly about the issues it’s addressing, but sadly, a little too plainly to be effective.
Rating: 6/10 – dry and only fitfully engaging, Vice has the feel of a movie that’s telling its story as if everyone’s already been briefed and the movie itself is something of a formality; when a movie that seeks to recount seismic events in recent US history lacks immediacy and verve then something is very wrong indeed.