Dick Cheney is fascinating – in the morbid way that villainous figures throughout history almost always are. But is George W. Bush’s former vice president compelling enough to serve as the subject of a darkly comedic biopic that runs over two hours long? Filmmaker Adam McKay certainly thinks so, though Vice – his follow-up to the critically acclaimed The Big Short – struggles to justify its existence with a rather tepid examination of one of the greatest villains in modern American politics.
Christian Bale is inarguably fantastic as Cheney in the film, which traces the former VP’s life from his time as a drunken blue collar ne’er-do-well to his two terms as Bush’s second-in-command. As Vice tells it – in case you’ve already forgotten this all-too-recent bit of history – Cheney was essentially calling all the shots. With the support of his ambitious wife, Lynne (Amy Adams), Cheney’s primary motivation in the White House was to obtain as much power as possible – even more than the president himself. 9/11 provided a horrible, perfect opportunity for Cheney to do just that, and over the next few years he was largely responsible for the torture of prisoners and the needless invasion of Iraq. But you know all of that, which is what makes the existence of McKay’s film feel so… bizarre.
In many ways, Vice operates much like The Big Short. McKay seems to have found some new cinematic niche, making darkly satirical retellings of recent historical events involving horrible white men in positions of power. They’re smart enough to be a step above Modern American History for Idiots, but they aren’t exactly far off. The “too soon” response has become something of a cliched joke, but exploring the life of Dick Cheney less than 10 years after he lorded over the White House feels, well, too soon. And not because it’s offensive or in poor taste; it’s just that the recurring thought one has while watching Vice is, yeah, we know. If McKay’s target audience were younger millennials or Generation Z, then his hand-holding through recent history – with an almost too friendly wink and a nudge – might seem more productive. As it stands, Vice is a humorous CliffsNotes for the Bush administration featuring a cast Drunk History could never afford.
And it’s a very good cast! Adams is stellar as Lynne Cheney, a character arguably more complex and fascinating than the weirdly secretive Dick she married. While Dick was pulling W’s strings, Lynne was puppeteering her husband – or so it seems. That’s particularly interesting when their daughters – Mary (Lily Rabe) and Liz (Alison Pill) – enter the picture. It becomes increasingly disturbing after Liz comes out to her parents, as viewers await the inevitable moment when Liz voices her objection to gay marriage while running for office, effectively destroying Mary. Unfortunately, given how closely-guarded Dick Cheney was, there isn’t much that the public knows about his personal life, and much of these scenes feel speculative at best. Some critics have derided McKay for painting too sympathetic a picture of Cheney; if anything, McKay is empathetic toward Cheney’s family. Of the man himself, McKay takes a view similar to that of a satirical New Yorker cartoon. Cheney is Darth Vader (Bale even nails the heavy breathing), only if Vader were sort of a bumbling drunk who stumbled upon a political line of work by chance. McKay’s version of Cheney wasn’t politically-minded, per se; he just wanted power. And the most of it he could get.
Vice’s remaining cast members are all well-suited to the material and turn in fine work: Steve Carell is perfectly narcissistic and slimy as Donald Rumsfeld. Sam Rockwell delivers a surprisingly straightforward performance as Dubya, depicting him not as an imbecile, but as someone who wasn’t exactly up to the task at hand (fans of the actor’s proclivity for dancing will be disappointed). Tyler Perry makes for one heck of a Colin Powell, and continues to prove that he might be a better actor than we all thought. But however enjoyable it is to watch all of these well-known actors play these real-life people, Vice can’t help but feel like a more expensive, feature-length version of an SNL cold opening – only slightly less silly.
In a recent tweet, film critic David Ehrlich said, “Adam McKay was an ‘important’ filmmaker until the moment when he started trying to become one.” That’s the most accurate description of McKay’s career trajectory, which is reminiscent of David O. Russell – another filmmaker who made far more interesting movies before he decided to rebrand himself as Diet Scorsese and pursue a few Oscars. Not for nothing, Russell’s prestige-chasing American Hustle also starred Amy Adams and a nearly unrecognizable and overweight Christian Bale. It’s never too late to change course.