Everything you need to know about the tone of VICE (2018) is handed to you in the film’s opening minutes when the words “Based on a true story” appear on-screen, followed by a disclaimer citing that Dick Cheney is one of the world’s most secretive leaders, followed by a final line “But we tried our f*cking best.”
Yep, VICE, a movie about Dick Cheney’s rise to power and what he did with it, is presented here largely as—- a comedy. And believe me, you’ll laugh, even as you cringe at Cheney’s view of power and his ensuing actions wielding it.
This comes as no surprise because VICE was written and directed by Adam McKay, the same man who brought us THE BIG SHORT (2015), his brilliant comedic take on the U.S. mortgage crisis in 2005, which somehow got us to laugh about corruption in banks and the housing market.
Here McKay takes his wild and witty style and applies it to the story of Dick Cheney, one of the most unfunny and serious figures in politics in recent memory. The idea of turning this guy’s story into a comedy seems ludicrous. It’s certainly a bizarre marriage. As such, some of it works. Some of it doesn’t. Most of it does.
VICE is also blessed with an A-list cast that includes Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell. Bale’s amazing transformation into Dick Cheney, a role for which the actor gained forty pounds, is reminiscent of the work Gary Oldman did last year as Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017). Both actors disappear into their roles. When Bale is onscreen, you’ll forget you’re watching a movie and believe you’re seeing the real Dick Cheney.
VICE introduces us to Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) in the 1960s when he seems lost and without ambition. He has a drinking problem, he’s been kicked out of college, and is working a thankless job putting up telephone wires. His girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him an ultimatum: either change now or she’s leaving him. He tells her he won’t let her down again, and according to this movie, he doesn’t.
Cheney makes his way to Washington D.C. as a Congressional intern, and he latches on to the charismatic Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). He even becomes a Republican because he wants to be like Rumsfeld. Cheney works hard, and soon he’s Rumsfeld’s right hand man. The two work for the Nixon administration, and then the Ford administration, with big plans for the future, but their plans are derailed when Ford loses the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.
But in 1980 Ronald Reagan is elected, and the two men are back in the White House again. After Reagan and Bush, Cheney himself eyes the presidency, but because his daughter Mary is gay, he decides he doesn’t want to put her through the scrutiny that would go along with his seeking the nomination on the conservative Republican ticket, and so he chooses not to run, for all intents and purposes in his mind, ending his career in politics.
But in 2000 George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) seeks out Cheney to be is running mate, a decision Cheney is not comfortable with at first, but then he begins to look ahead, and he realizes that as Vice President especially under an inexperienced political leader like Bush, he’d be in the unique position of wielding incredible power and doing it all while flying under the radar, covered by the protective veil of the vice -presidency, traditionally a “nothing” position.
Which is exactly what he did.
Adam McKay’s screenplay for VICE is very similar to his screenplay for THE BIG SHORT, in that it breaks the fourth wall, uses all kinds of weird and wacky ideas to tell its story, and become extremely creative in breaking down complex situations and explaining them to the audience.
For example, the narrator here, a man named Kurt (Jesse Plemons) about halfway through the film asks the audience that they’re probably wondering who he is and what his connection is to Dick Cheney, to which he says he’ll explain later. And he does, and his relationship with Cheney is quite unique, and worthy of both a dark laugh and a tear. It makes for very clever storytelling.
This style worked better in THE BIG SHORT mostly because the complexities of the mortgage industry lent themselves better to the over-the-top style of having various people break the fourth wall to explain things to the audience. While government is also complex, the perception of it is that it’s not as much a mystery as the banking industry, and so the various explanations of what’s going on inside the inner workings of the government are not quite as astute.
But you can’t blame McKay for trying. His efforts here are pretty impressive. I mean, how can you fault a movie that at one point has Dick and Lynne Cheney speaking to each other in Shakespearean sonnets? Or that pulls off the bold stunt of rolling fake credits midway through the movie after Cheney accepts his political career is over, only to pull back when suddenly the phone rings and it’s George W. Bush on the line?
The comedic strokes used here by McKay are a lot of fun, but to be honest, the juxtaposition between the fun McKay is having with the film and his subject, the dour Dick Cheney, is quite jarring. Part of this is McKay’s fault, because the other strength of his screenplay is he nails all the serious stuff. His interpretation of Dick Cheney’s reign as vice president is right on the money, so much so that at times I wished he had played this one straight and just told the darn story.
I’m sure Christian Bale will be noticed come Oscar time. It’s a fabulous performance which goes above and beyond the obvious make-up job on him to look just like Dick Cheney. He captures Cheney’s mannerisms and way of speaking as well. But even just doing this would only make his performance a caricature, and Bale goes beyond that. As best he can, he gets inside Cheney’s head and motivations. With a minimum of words, he conveys to the audience what it is Cheney is thinking and feeling. It’s a great performance by Bale all around.
I also really enjoyed Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush. Like Bale with Cheney, Rockwell also captures Bush’s mannerisms and style of speaking, and also like Bale, he goes beyond the caricature. He doesn’t play Bush like a hapless buffoon. He plays him the way he’s often been described by people who know him, like someone you’d want to have a beer with, even while disagreeing with him.
Rockwell definitely makes Bush green, a man who desperately wants Cheney’s experience by his side, and who seems only too comfortable with all the changes Cheney made to the vice presidency, like having additional offices in the House of Representatives and at the Pentagon, seeing National Security briefings before the president, and even being the one to assemble the cabinet when Bush first won the election.
Amy Adams adds fine support as Lynne Cheney, the woman who saw Cheney as her ticket to success, since she knew in the 1960s that women had no future in politics, so she did all she could to support and help her husband achieve his political dreams. Likewise, Steve Carrell is excellent as Donald Rumsfeld.
VICE ends the way it begins, with moments that define the entire movie. At the end of VICE, Cheney is being interviewed about his years as vice president, and he turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall as he addresses the audience and says he’s not going to apologize for his actions. He says he was elected to serve the people, and that’s exactly what he did, in order to keep them safe. In effect, he vowed to do whatever it took to prevent another terrorist attack from happening during his watch.
The fact that his policies enabled the U.S. government to overstep its bounds in terms of surveillance, torture, holding suspects indefinitely without allowing them access to lawyers, and other human rights abuses meant little to him. He was doing what he believed needed to be done. And right after 9/11, most Americans agreed with him.
But what they didn’t agree with was the administration’s position on Iraq. When it was proven that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was not connected to 9/11, people asked and rightly so, then what the heck are we doing in Iraq? Why aren’t we going after Osama Bin Laden?
The movie makes its opinion clear. Folks like Rumsfeld and Cheney wanted to attack Iraq long before 9/11 for reasons that had to do with oil.
Our current president, Trump, likes to blame faulty intelligence agencies for the Iraq weapons of mass destruction snafu, but the film also makes clear that our intelligence agencies got it right: they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, but Cheney ignored their briefs and latched onto one obscure report that listed one terrorist living in Iraq.
When Secretary of State Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) addressed the United Nations when told to do so by George W. Bush, outlying the U.S. belief that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, and mentioned this terrorist by name, several times, it gave the guy name recognition, and he went on to gain considerable power in Iraq and eventually formed an organization known as —- ISIS.
The scene where Powell addresses the United Nations is one of the best in the movie, as it’s evident how uncomfortable Powell was having to say things he pretty much knew were not true. Powell has called this speech the worst moment in his life.
And there’s an after-credit scene as well, which also hits the mark. A group of people are being interviewed by a reporter, when one man says he’s upset that this film has a liberal bias, and the man next to him takes offense. They get into an argument, Trump is mentioned, and suddenly there’s a physical brawl.
The point? Well, here we are today, and things are arguably worse, and for right or wrong, the way things are today started because of the policies of one Dick Cheney.
VICE is a very ambitious movie, both light and serious, although strangely it’s mostly light. A lot of it plays as if Michael Moore had decided to direct a feature film rather than a documentary. That being said, it doesn’t really diss on Dick Cheney or George W. Bush.
And that just might be the film’s greatest strength, that in spite of the harm which the film states Cheney has caused, it finds in its heart humor and makes us laugh, and in doing so, portrays Cheney as nothing short of an honorable man.
Will this be how history views Cheney? Time will tell.