Satire, comedy, or historical narrative?
Vice opens with a disclaimer on its portrayal of former vice president Dick Cheney. The filmmakers claim the movie is “as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is known as one of the most secretive leaders in recent history. But we did our (expletive) best.”
This statement sets the tone for the movie as a satirical look at a polarizing figure in U.S. history. The movie is witty, but because the truth is never exactly clear, it allows writer/director Adam McKay to take liberties. Is he trying to do his “best” to tell Cheney’s story or his “best” to entertain? It’s not clear that McKay even knows his intentions, making the movie entertaining but ultimately void of an identity.
The movie starts with a young Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) finding himself arrested for a DUI, after which his wife Lynne (Amy Adams) gives him an ultimatum to straighten out his life or lose her. Dick chooses to work hard toward a career in politics, starting with a congressional internship where he meets and befriends Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carrell).
With a running voice-over throughout the movie (from Jesse Plemons, whose character intersects with the Cheney story), the story takes viewers through Cheney’s rise from congressman, to secretary of defense, and ultimately the vice presidency. When George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) asks Cheney to consider being his running mate, Cheney ultimately agrees if they can agree to a “different arrangement” in which Cheney would yield more power than any previous vice president.
While Vice portrays Cheney as selfish and power-hungry, it also shows him as protective of his family. He and his wife Lynne supported their lesbian daughter Mary, and Dick decided not to run for president partly because he did not want Mary to be thrust into the public eye. In the funniest part of the movie, Cheney makes a decision to leave the public eye, the credits roll, and the filmmakers tell the audience that the Cheneys retreated to privacy to be with family and write books.
Of course, the story doesn’t really end that way, and the satire is just getting started in Vice. After the false ending, Cheney is portrayed as not only a proponent of executive power but also an abuser of said power. The movie shows Cheney use this power as a blank check to torture presumed enemies, spy on civilians, and start wars. All of this is done with a backdrop of humor. Given the subject matter, however, the satire often creates an uncomfortable marriage of grimace and laughter, a line McKay blurs often.
While Vice portrays Cheney as selfish and power-hungry, it also shows him as protective of his family.
Vice tries to act as a historical narrative and come across as a comedy, but doesn’t completely succeed at either. For those who already know about Cheney’s life, the movie won’t sway you politically regardless of where you stand. For those who don’t know Cheney’s story, the movie will be entertaining but won’t really narrow down who Cheney is. While the filmmakers show him grab for power, they never fully delve into his motivation. He uses power, but there nothing that tells the audience why he wants that kind of power in the first place.
The movie’s ultimate saving grace is its acting. Bale’s transformation into Cheney will most likely yield him an Oscar win. Much like Gary Oldman, who last year won the Academy Award for best actor for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, Bale morphs into a historical figure and makes us forget that he ever played any other role in his career. And like Darkest Hour, the lead performance provides the impetus – and main reason – to see the movie.
Adams and Rockwell, who were nominated for their supporting roles, also turn in stellar performances but Bale is worth the price of admission – at least for a rental or second-run theater.
Vice received eight Academy Award nominations Tuesday, including best picture and best director and screenplay for McKay, who was also was nominated for best director and won for best screenplay in 2015 for his work on The Big Short. While it’s creative and entertaining, Vice is not worthy of a best picture nomination. Vice and Bohemian Rhapsody, another half-baked biopic snagged nominations, while the deserving If Beale Street Could Talk, First Reformed, and Sorry to Bother You – a superior political satire – were left out.
Despite the nominations, I can’t say that McKay did his “best.” He used Cheney’s secrecy as a crutch and didn’t reveal enough about what made Cheney follow his path. As a tutorial on how to practice method acting and entertain an audience, Vice succeeds. But as a satire and historical narrative, it never reaches its potential.
2.5/4 stars. Rated for language and some violent images. Mom: yes. Dad: no.