Our big hint comes halfway through the film, when Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) and Lynne Cheney (Amy Adams) forgo pretenses with a Shakespearean soliloquy. This is a Shakespearean farce based on tangible history. The film discloses in its opening seconds, Cheney was a secretive man, and thus hard to capture, “We did our fucking best.” Certainly, Bale has done his best, putting on a hefty amount of weight to fill the large pants of his role. Adam McKay has given spirited direction to this tight and mean biopic where we cannot tell fact from fiction anyway, because the line has been blurred to such an extent that there is little difference.
How does a man like Cheney come to power? Vice has a simple answer, that he’s failed upwards primarily by a thirst for power and at the behest of his powerful wife. The GOP is an Old Boy’s Club. The kind that these men simply fall into, with their collegiate drinking careers at fine universities the only backing necessary. Women are new here, says Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld, so they’ll have to cull the dick jokes, or excuse the women from entering their club for the moment. A series of increasingly unilateral decision making propels Cheney into a position where he’s President by proximity. His Vice Presidency comes almost as an inevitability – a position he once held only involved waiting for the President to die – but the inability of “Bush’s boy” puts him in the enviable position of having Presidential command, without the responsibility of the title.
The common misdeed has become some idea that George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) was somehow innocuous. This isn’t the review where we say, you’re going to find everything you need to deal with your feelings about the Trump administration within. No. The hard truth is that, if you’re a far-left liberal, this is the period where things got done. The film warns of the quiet man, who sits back and acts, after everyone else has spoken too loud and not taken action. This is the administration that advanced against your very Democratic interests. So take some head in what’s happening here – a forewarning that not every alternative is better than Trump – that is your only timely message. Otherwise, this ground has been well and fully covered.
There remains something immeasurably new about this ensemble. When Bale’s Cheney and Rockwell’s Bush are together, we occasionally forgot anyone was doing any acting. They feel more true, human, and real than their non-fiction counterparts. Bale’s weighty performance – putting on an extra 45 pounds for the role – is a method lesson for the books. He outperforms some familiar faces, a Steve Carell who cannot remove his own identity from Rumsfeld. A supportive Amy Adams elevates her make-believe husband in every scene. The women of the White House carry their own extraordinary lives, and she lives up to the status of the woman. Jesse Plemons plays a surprising role as a narrator, with hit and miss effect, while adding an inventive spin through a new performance. Most surprising of all, a game Tyler Perry transforms into Colin Powell. Once again, the cast are more their subject than the actual people, on account of having a greater humanity.
Vice is evidently an actor’s showcase. It is also elevated behind the camera. Adam McKay has once again fashioned an important story about calls to power. Like his excellent work in The Big Short (2015) and Succession before it, he finds the truth behind the façade of wealth and authority. The editing is innovative and fresh, cutting between the calming streams of Cheney’s fly fishing holes and the smoking towers of 9/11. It’s full of craft, matching the most common images and ideas of this century’s media to new information, context of that time and place, and how it felt to bear witness to a government that could not trust itself.
Partisan as it is, Vice has some appeal across the aisles, where politics have blurred into some grotesque amalgamation of hateful sides shown by the media. It brings us back to a time where togetherness was questioned – the fateful day of 9/11 – and leaves a question, whether anything can bring us together again. As we expose the faults of power and wealth, with such bravery as McKay’s recent exposays, it reminds us of the awesome power films have. Highly recommended for its excellent and ranging method acting, once Vice sinks its teeth into the material, there’s some subversive fun to be had with a few of its new ideas. Bolder than Oliver Stone’s limp W. (2008) and more grounded than current SNL’s political comedy (of course, McKay is from that legacy too), Vice is our new reference point for this era of American history.