In times of political turmoil such as these, we often find ourselves asking what could have possibly led to such domestic and international turbulence in our government and our world. Multi-hyphenate screenwriter, director and producer Adam McKay strives to answer this question with his most recent film, “Vice.” Returning to the screen as another husband and wife dynamic duo, Christian Bale and Amy Adams star as Dick and Lynne Cheney, examining Dick Cheney’s rise to prominence, beginning with his days as a White House intern all the way through his term as vice president of the United States and beyond.
“Vice” is a far cry from any other biopic of the time period, and, quite frankly, should not be compared to other dramatizations of political events or careers. As people lean into the habit of glorifying the Bush Administration, McKay seeks to drag his audience back to reality — reminding them of the atrocities committed during the years that Bush and Cheney occupied the executive branch. He bluntly reminds us of this through shocking scenes depicting the bombing of Iraqi civilians and the use of torture at American-run detainee camps like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. Unlike contemporaries such as “Darkest Hour” or “The King’s Speech,” the story of Cheney’s insidious rise to power is riddled with humor that hangs over the audience like a stormcloud, time jumps and one rather peculiar Shakespearean scene. Also unlike the stories of glorious kings, presidents and prime ministers, Bale’s Cheney stars as the antihero of the film, which becomes more and more obvious with his ever-increasing preponderance of power.
One of the most difficult tasks of the entire film is the humanization of Vice President Cheney. In depicting a man notorious for his cunning abuse of executive power, willingness to commit horrific crimes against humanity in the name of targeting “enemy combatants” and a snakelike ability to turn on family and friends for the sake of political gain, McKay and Bale certainly had their work cut out for them. While it is quite apparent that the film pins the devastating Iraq War and rise of terrorist organizations like ISIS on Cheney, it also attempts to intersperse moments throughout the plot that serve as a reminder that even the most cold-hearted and ruthless powermongerers have feelings too. A particular soft spot of Cheney’s examined in “Vice” is his relationship with his daughter Mary, his support of her sexuality and his concern for her privacy during his campaign for vice president. However, McKay never lets the audience stray far from the reminder of Cheney’s green light on numerous war crimes. McKay masters the juxtaposition of Cheney’s life as a family man versus that as a ruthless global instigator. In one particular scene, the Cheney family is seen eating a meal on an idyllic porch, surrounded by laughter and innocuous conversation; suddenly, we are transported to Iraq in which we are faced with deafening blasts, burning bodies and the screams of soldiers and civilians alike.
In a movie that can sometimes get lost in its storytelling, what really sets “Vice” apart is its remarkable cast. It is no surprise that Bale and Adams keep getting cast as a pair, and this film is no exception; the two deliver a subtle yet still electrifying chemistry and balance each other’s energy to deliver a pair of powerful yet nuanced performances. Additionally, true standout performances are delivered by Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry as Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rockwell disappears into the role of the younger President Bush, and his village idiot-like naïveté expertly furthers the plot of Cheney’s merciless ascent to power. Carell’s Rumsfeld seems to be a step outside of the actor’s wheelhouse, though at times he provided comic relief as the old-school and crude Secretary of Defense. Perry artfully portrays the far-too-smart Powell, reaching his peak in a scene in which, at the behest of Cheney, he regretfully delivers a speech to the UN encouraging the disarmament of Iraq.
The phenomenal makeup, transformative cast and at times bizarre employment of storytelling tropes have made “Vice” one of the most unique films of the year. Sobering footage of the Cheney-initiated Iraq war and the involvement of the film’s mysterious and seemingly unrelated narrator had me engaged throughout the duration of the film. I am already looking forward to McKay’s future take on the Trump administration.
Great acting, but not a very good film.