I just want to go back to the days where Adam McKay was helping Will Ferrell make his only good movies…
“Vice” is the biopic of Dick Cheney, a man who would rise from young staffer all the way to Vice President of the United States. Christian Bale, who gained 40 pounds for the role, portrays Cheney, Amy Adams plays his wife, while Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill and Jesse Plemons also star. Adam McKay writes and directs.
Adam McKay made a name for himself directing and co-writing with Will Ferrell, helping with arguably his best films (“The Other Guys,” “Anchorman” and “Talladega Nights” just to name three). Then in 2015 McKay took a swing at a more serious topic, the 2008 market crash and all that led up to it, with “The Big Short.” His script won him an Oscar, although I personally stand by that the film is a poorly directed mess and it’s just not that good or coherent overall. When it was announced that he would be taking on a political satire with Ferrell (known for his George W. impersonation on SNL) producing, I was intrigued, especially with this all-star cast. I should have known that it would just end up being the Washington, D.C. version of “The Big Short” but I guess sometimes I put too much faith in people.
One of my biggest issues with “The Big Short” is what I have fault with here and that is the editing. Some shot-reverse-shots are from entirely different takes and it is blatantly obvious, although it remains to be seen if that is McKay’s intention or if he and editor Hank Corwin were just lazy. Also, much like “Big Short,” McKay inserts random clips into scenes to act as metaphors for what is transpiring in the very scene we are watching (one ongoing one is that of a fly-fishing pole being cast whenever Cheney is talking to Bush, representing him reeling him into his plans). It is often awkward and off-putting, because when it isn’t beating you over the head with the heavy-handed symbolism, you’re scratching that head trying to find out what that random stock photo means.
As far as historical accuracy goes, the events depicted, to my knowledge of the Bush administration, are pretty accurate. It is certainly interesting to see just how many world-shaping events Cheney had a part in over his career, and the names he brushed shoulders with throughout the years. However McKay makes two faults, both being guilty through omission.
While he paints Cheney as a power-hungry oligarch of sorts, wanting to start wars for no other reason than enhance his power and wealth, he never really mentions that Cheney and his team were more so just going off their Republican instincts and listening to their base when they declared war. He also tries early on to paint Cheney as this outsider that suddenly became VP from the shadows, although by 2000 Cheney was well-known in the political community and even was key in ending the Gulf War (an event, along with the fall of the Soviet Union, never mentioned in the film because it would have to paint Cheney in an even-minded light). McKay also, on several occasions, has the narrator say “it is impossible to know what was going on in Cheney’s head, but it is fair to wonder and assume that…” This is a line Michael Moore used in his anti-Trump documentary “Fahrenheit 11/9” earlier this year and it just comes off, to me at least, as disingenuous, like you know you’re stretching but want deniability should you get called out.
As Cheney, Christian Bale is quite good, obviously gaining the weight and mastering the growls and long exhales. The film never really gets into what makes him tick as a man, why he does what he does, until the very final scene but as a surface-level performance, it will be enough to get Bale his award talk. As his wife Lynne, Amy Adams is quiet but effective as his motivator and equally cunning partner, with McKay saying in an interview “whoever married her was going to become President or Vice President.” However just like Dick, we only get but a quick glance into what motivates her, which is a shame because a film focusing on the Cheney power couple (or Clintons, for that matter) would be a real-life “House of Cards.”
Steve Carell and Sam Rockwell, playing Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush, respectively, get dumped under some makeup and prosthetics but deliver light, entertaining performances, even if they are but caricatures of who they are portraying.
The performances and some intriguing insight into the workings of Washington backroom deals are really the only things about “Vice” that warrant you checking it out. McKay’s script (and certainly his direction) are all over the place and don’t give any true new information into the mind and plotting of Dick Cheney or the Bush administration and at this point, nearly 20 years later, we all know what Cheney is and how him pulling the strings on things like the Iraq War was a mistake. We don’t need a $60 million movie to remind us.
Critic’s Grade: C–