‘Vice’ Is a Joyfully Terrifying Biopic of W’s VP

Was Dick Cheney the anti-Trump or the Anti-Christ?

Handsome Christian Bale channeling Handsome Dick Cheney. (Annapurna Pictures)

You think Trump is bad? Imagine an unnervingly quiet public servant whose keen knowledge of government machinations allows him to become fabulously wealthy and wildly powerful, all without a single tweet. It’s a coin-toss whether former vice president Dick Cheney is the anti-Trump or the Anti-Christ, but Adam McKay’s joyfully terrifying biopic makes a strong case for both. More than anything, George W. Bush’s infamous second-in-command comes off like a preternatural political ninja.

A dark lord of the inner beltway, Cheney (a chunky Christian Bale) acted with breathtaking impunity while deftly avoiding any Congressional investigations. Here’s a statesman who pushed for an unnecessary war in Iraq that led to the deaths of more than a half million people. A bureaucrat who made sure that 22 million of his e-mails were never archived. A businessman who gave billions of dollars of no-bid contracts to the energy management company he used to run.

VICE ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Adam McKay
Written by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Alison Pill
Running time: 132 min.

And, most importantly, he’s a politician who took an all-prestige, no-responsibility position and turned it into a nexus of influence and control. During his two-term tenure, from 2001 to 2009, Cheney had oversight of Bush’s military, energy, and foreign policy—with the president’s blessing. “That’s not what the V.P. does,” someone tells him at yet another moment of overreach. “Well, it is now,” he growls back.

McKay’s follow-up to The Big Short continues his mid-career pivot away from broad comedy and into a heady brand of satire that will make you laugh as much as it makes you cry. Unlikely as it sounds, the former SNL staff writer and comic auteur behind Anchorman and Talladega Nights might be the only filmmaker qualified to capture the true absurdity of Cheney’s What Just Happened? life in politics.

At times, McKay’s approach feels too simplistic, too trite, less Bob Woodward and more Personal and Political Corruption for Dummies. That said, so much of Cheney’s superficially staid demeanor is best captured with a sketch-comedy spin. “What do we believe?” a young, soft-spoken Cheney says to his mentor, Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), which makes the future Secretary of Defense double over in laughter. “That’s very good,” he replies with a Cheshire Cat smile. Did that really happen? Probably not. Does it feel plausible? Fuck yes.

McKay does a delightful job charting this fascinating, unlikely rise of a so-so, vomit-and-booze-soaked Yale student. Even his own wife, Lynne (Amy Adams) calls him a “big, fat, piss-soaked zero” and “a filthy hobo,” embracing her Lady Macbeth role with relish to escape an abusive father and build a new life far away from their dead-end Wyoming lives. Cue the pillow talk rendered completely in Shakespearean dialogue.

But the most intriguing point McKay makes is how, repeatedly, Cheney’s story could have ended: during one of his multiple heart attacks, during his charisma-free run for Wyoming Congressman, or during his exit from the White House and into the private sector as Chief Executive of Halliburton. That last one has one of the best gags in the film, when mock end credits start rolling and McKay indulges the fantasy that his vice-presidential stint might have never happened. Fate always seems to intervene. Cheney is more armchair opportunist than gung-ho conqueror, yet he keeps getting pulled back into the swamp. And no one knows better how to make mud pies.

His great innovation: Absolute Executive Authority. Cheney was fascinated with expanded presidential powers, dating back to the ’70s. So was a pre-Supremes Antonin Scalia, who enthusiastically endorsed a Unitary Executive Theory that paved the way for W.’s “if we do it, it’s not torture” philosophy of unfettered governance. And when George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) came a-knockin’, Cheney hooked the gullible scion and smooth-talked his way into a work portfolio that essentially included the Oval Office.

But his other great insight was to bore people into consent. He personified the proverb “Beware the Quiet Man,” since he knew a gravelly drone was more persuasive (or at least less provocative) than shrieking swagger. Let conservative media outlets do the yelling, as far as he was concerned. Cheney was a soft-touch guy, as befits the lifelong fly fisherman whose Secret Service code name was “Angler.” Besides, who else was better at playing all the angles?

There are a few humanizing touches, due in no small part to his true love for Lynn and their two daughters. His particular embrace of gay daughter Mary (Alison Pill) remains one of the conservative icon’s few facets of nuance that keeps him from being a complete caricature of brazen self-interest. It’s explored, but the film’s interest is token at best.

For the most part, McKay simply presents the facts and lets their outrageousness do all the work. Yes, Cheney really did shoot a man in the face with a shotgun. And yes, that man actually apologized to Cheney for ruining his hunting trip. Those of voting age during the Bush Administration who pined for Gore or Kerry will wince at all the greatest hits: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” “Global War on terror.” “Iraq has all the good targets.” “Warrantless Surveillance.” Valerie Plame. Scooter Libby. Al-Zarqawi. Saddam. Guantanamo. Abu Ghraib.

Somehow, in the age of the Donald, the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Bush era feel almost quaint. Vice is a chafing reminder that they were even more vicious. At least so far.

 You May Also Like

Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *