Oh Dick Cheney. The former vice president of the United States is probably more infamous that his often-mocked counterpart, President George W. Bush, and yet many seems to speak of him with more due respect. That’s because he became possibly THE most powerful vice president the country ever had. While Bush’s story has been told on the big screen, Cheney’s has always been more of a glorified footnote until today. Despite Cheney living a very private life, writer and director Adam McKay (the director of many Will Ferrell movies and the Oscar nominated “The Big Short”) took a crack at bringing Cheney’s life and rise to power to the big screen resulting in a biographical comedy drama that has turned many heads, for better or worse. With more Golden Globe nominations than any movie in 2018, I HAD to take a look at this film for myself. Is “Vice” worthy of the buzz surrounding it or is it the uneven cinematic experience some critics have claimed it to be? Let’s take a look. This is my review of “Vice”
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Vice” explores the origins and career of the 46th vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) from his humble early years as an alcoholic to his marriage to influential wife Lynne (Amy Adams), his friendship with mentor and eventual underling Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and his vice presidency under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell). Cheney works his way up the political ladder to serve numerous posts in the White House and within the Republican Party. When the vice presidency comes knocking Cheney uncovers legal loopholes that allow him to become more powerful than even the president leading him to play a role in some of the most controversial events in American history in the 2000s including the War on Terror and become one of the most divisive politicians in U.S. history.
Alright I have a lot to say about this movie, so I’ll try to keep it as concise as possible because “Vice” in many ways lives up to expectations, but I can also see why it has irked so many critics and viewers. Let’s get the easiest compliment to this film out of the way first, the acting and performances. There isn’t a poor performance in this picture in my opinion. Everyone owns their roles and brings their respective figures to life, fully embracing the tone of the film while also trying to capture the unique personalities and legacies of their characters. Christian Bale turns in one of the greatest performances of 2018 in a transformative take as Cheney. Bale embodies both the look and personality of the former VP perfectly and the fact that we get to see him at a young age and then in his older years only adds to this impressive performance as Bale gains weight and dawns a completely different look the older Cheney gets. Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell have both received Golden Globe nominations for their roles in the film and are incredibly deserving while Steve Carell, Lily Rabe and even Tyler Perry are other notable performers that help create one of the most complete casts in any movie in 2018. No matter what problems you may find in “Vice” the cast is unbelievably strong and worthy of universal praise.
Let’s talk about the handling of Dick Cheney for a minute. Of course tackling any politician is going to be difficult because public opinion is always mixed about the person right from the get go. While “Vice” isn’y completely fair to its subject and takes a justifiably critical look at the life and career of Cheney it doesn’t completely demonize the former VP. In fact, in many ways it humanizes Cheney presenting him as a wise man who found loopholes and took full advantage of whatever he could. It even provides motivations for his longing for power as he evolves from a useless college dropout to become a much larger part of society than he probably ever imagined. There are many times in this film where I felt I could sympathize with Cheney and I genuinely asked myself if I would have done the same thing in his position. The addition of a narrator (played by Jesse Plemons) helps guide viewers through Cheney’s life sometimes implying how we SHOULD feel about his actions and other times appearing fascinated by Cheney’s capabilities. While “Vice” does venture into preachy territory (I’ll touch on that later) the way it presents Cheney is kind of reminiscent of the “House of Cards” character Frank Underwood in that it takes someone many see as evil and underhanded and actually makes us relate to him and, to some degree, respect him even if we don’t like him.
The comedy and writing in this movie is also incredible. I had so much fun watching “Vice” and very much enjoyed its script and often self-aware sense of humor. Adam McKay might be more known for the oddball comedies of Will Ferrell’s career, but “Vice” brings out his best with an entertaining script and screenplay that balances dramatic tension and levity with ease. The performers of course bring the content to a whole new level, but “Vice” is a rare film that can go from a serious and shocking revelation to an absurd and random comedic scene without sacrificing any impact or understanding of the material. It just flows really well from one scene to the next, from one joke to the next and from one realization to the next making for an awesome and enthralling viewing experience. Not to mention the story itself is just fascinating. In some ways its provocative and in others it’s amusing and insightful. Cheney was such a controversial leader that there was mountains of material to choose from and while not every important moment from his time in the White House is explored the moments that are touched upon are genuinely interesting. Each one justifies why this man deserved to be the subject of a Hollywood film.
A notable issue with “Vice” is that in the third act it seems to lose touch of its pacing and there are numerous significant moments in the VP’s life and time in office that are either ignored or barely touched on. For example, that infamous incident where he shot Harry Whittington while quail hunting? Yeah that’s literally less than a minute of screen time and barely mentioned. His decision to cut down on military spending while Secretary of Defense despite later supporting the War on Terror as a VP? Ignored. His constant discussions with foreign leaders are merely shown in montages, any details of his campaigning during the presidential election are ignored, the Valerie Plame scandal is merely a footnote, and the 2007 assassination attempt on his life is not featured in the movie at all. Now with a biopic like this and only two hours to tell the story I can understand that details have to be summarized or left out, but the movie takes so long setting up Cheney’s vice presidency (in fact the election takes place just about an hour into the picture) that the it seems to lose track of its pacing by the final thirty minutes and rushes through as much as possible to get to the finale. It’s still very watchable and entertaining but I feel like the filmmakers backed themselves into a corner where they had to focus on only a select few events from the actual vice presidency and chose to explore only certain matters that fit the main narrative: that Cheney was an irredeemable and heartless man despite his brilliance and occasional tact…in fact…
For me “Vice’s” biggest, well, vice is that it is very one sided at the end of the day. “Vice” tries very hard to paint a specific picture of Dick Cheney and it’s apparent everyone involved don’t want to you to route for this man when the credits roll. I can understand and appreciate a filmmaker trying to get a point across and develop a character a certain extent but when you’re dealing with a real-life person the best thing is to give us someone that we can judge for ourselves. Now I did compliment “Vice” for humanizing Dick Cheney, but by the end of the film it implies that his actions led to a lot of the dysfunction and divide the United States deals with today. While that might be partially true there’s so much more to it and so many more events, even some feature in this very movie, that changed the dynamic of the general public in America without Cheney’s help. So it’s easy to see how “Vice” can be interpreted as mean spirited and spreading a certain angle. I made a similar criticism when reviewing “BlacKkKlansman”. Both films make the mistake of trying too hard to draw a specific reaction from the audience when they don’t need to. We don’t need to be spoon fed reasons why Dick Cheney was a questionable leader. We all know what he did and what he was like. He left the vice presidency with one of the the worst ratings of any leader in the nation’s history. For all the chances this movie takes that work, its attempt to pander to a specific group of people with a very specific opinion on Cheney is by far its most glaring mistake.
“Vice” is destined to be a film as polarizing as the man who inspired it. The story of Dick Cheney is a fascinating one that did very much deserve the cinematic treatment and while there will be righteous naysayers who feel this film doesn’t do it justice I for one feel it is an excellent film. “Vice” packs incredible acting (one of the best ensemble casts of the year in fact) with plenty of effective humor, eye-opening explorations of historical events and an awesome and gripping script that all make for a wonderful cinematic experience. Its major flaw is that by the end of the final act the narrative does try too hard to swing the viewer’s opinion on Cheney in one specific direction, but at the same time Cheney WAS a much maligned figure during his time in office and one could very well argue that he was at least partially responsible for the discord that has become the norm in American since his time in the White House. While “Vice” would have been better off allowing the viewer to be the judge and come to that conclusion on their own, it does still make a bold attempt to humanize Cheney and dare I say it offers some justification for Cheney as a decent person who did what others would have done by simply taking advantage of loopholes to work his way into a position of power. When you take everything into consideration, the acting, the story, the writing, and the presentation, I’m willing to endure a bit of pandering for such an amazing cinematic experience. I’m definitely on the side that calls “Vice” one of the year’s best films.