Dir. Adam McKay; Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell
[1 out of 4 stars]
My memory of George W. Bush’s presidency is limited mostly to bits of major addresses he gave, such as the one in the aftermath of 9/11, and his final months before Barack Obama entered the White House. Obama’s presidency is where my political memory begins in earnest, and so started the process of retroactively filling the historical gap of American history. This impulse to return to the recent past and reconsider what occurred has always been a theme in moviemaking, and has become especially popular in our current climate. Adam McKay’s most recent directorial effort Vice (2018), which tells the story of how Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) rose to become the puppetmaster of the Bush presidency, enters into the greater cultural effort to scrutinize our collective national past. Vice fits into the same subcategory of filmmaking that The Post (2017) did last year: movies that seek to connect our current tumult to the historical drive to interrogate the national nexus of power. Vice is inarguably the more ambitious project of the two, and as a result is an enjoyable and well-crafted movie that nonetheless shows the strain of trying to cover too much story as well as offer a tidy moral takeaway.
McKay introduces us to Cheney as he is pulled over for driving under the influence as a young man. Freshly kicked out of Yale for drinking too much, he works as a powerline technician and lives in his wife Lynne’s (Amy Adams) family home with her parents. After Lynne gives him a tongue-lashing as a result of his DUI, Cheney pulls himself together and secures a Congressional internship in Washington D.C. McKay spends no time outlining how this came about, but rather launches right into Cheney’s rise after becoming right-hand-man to then Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Rumsfeld is given a position in the Nixon White House, and so Cheney moves into an office there, walking the same halls as Henry Kissinger and the like. Lynne is proud of him, and so she and their two daughters settle in D.C. Watergate throws a wrench in all of it though, yet somehow Cheney escapes that political black mark and becomes President Ford’s Chief of Staff when Rumsfeld, who priorly held the position, is named Secretary of Defense. When Ford loses to Jimmy Carter, Cheney retreats to his home state of Wyoming and successfully runs for Congress where he stayed until being appointed Secretary of Defense by President George H.W. Bush (John Hillner). From there, he retires from politics to work in the private sector, at least until presidential candidate George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) comes calling and asking for Cheney to be his Vice President. Cheney accepts and so begins McKay’s chronicling of how Cheney was truly the man in charge when it came to everything from the Iraq War to deregulation. If you’re thinking this sounds like an overstuffed plot you’re not alone.
This is a lot of narrative ground for any movie cover, rolling through half a century of an intricate political career. As a result, Vice played to me almost like two separate movies, the first being Cheney’s life up through the late 1990’s when he retreated from politics to work in the private sector, while the second focuses exclusively on his involvement in George W. Bush’s presidency. McKay seems aware of this, putting one of his best visual gags at the end of the pre-Bush arc. With subtitles worth of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) he positions the Cheney’s life like a schmaltzy movie that gives you ‘what they did next’ updates such as the fictitious statement that Cheney “never again entered into politics” before a credit scrawl begins. The scrawl is interrupted by a cut to a ringing phone, which a visibly aged Cheney answers to hear that Bush wants to meet with him about the Vice Presidency. Even though McKay senses this sort of break between the two arcs, he often seems unable to give them equal attention, or to meld them into one piece. The first half deals with so much exposition and stage-setting that it usually feels rushed, and often skims over transitional periods, such as when Cheney went from an angry drunk in Wyoming to a Congressional intern in Washington D.C.; McKay gives us no indication of how he achieved such growth apart from a motivational reaming out that Lyne gives him. This contrasts with the second half, which moves at a slower pace and therefore allows far more intimate examination of Cheney and the Bush administration, moving through famous moments, such as the response to 9/11, and less known bits, including Cheney calling Rumsfeld to tell him he’s fired, in a way that makes it feel much more fully formed. From a writing and directing perspective, McKay seems much more assured of his storytelling in this second half, and it makes me wonder if the movie may have been better served if it focused on the Bush presidency from the beginning and revealed the past through a few quick flashbacks. I imagine this would have given it a more cohesive feeling as opposed to the unevenness that currently drags it down.
Beyond pacing and structure, McKay also seems to be dealing with a tonal tension that is present throughout the whole film, though it is more jarring in the first half, most likely as result of the pacing issues. McKay’s previous exemplary work on The Big Short (2015) showed him tackle a huge and emotionally charged issue in a way that allowed for raucous comedy blended with the chilling revelations of how the economic crisis unfolded. He switched between comedy and drama quite seamlessly, but the same cannot be said for Vice. At its core, Vice seems to me like it is a satirical farce more than anything else. Yet, Cheney never becomes someone we can comfortably laugh at. For the first half, Cheney as subject but not locus of comedy means that the humor comes through the narration provided by Kurt (Jesse Plemons), whose mystery relationship to Cheney is a wonderful reveal that I won’t spoil here. Accenting this wonderfully is the portrayal of Rumsfeld that Carrel delivers, which I will return to shortly. Resultantly, it seems that there is a comedy happening around Cheney that never pierces him for he remains an unsettling figure who commits extensive moral and legal transgressions during his rise to political power. In one moment when he asks Rumsfeld “what do we believe,” Rumsfeld laughs at him as though beliefs are one big joke. Because Rumsfeld has been pegged as an almost comic relief figure, his laughter is amusing, whereas as Cheney seems to take it to heart, something that surfaces most predominantly during the second half when McKay intersperses images of the torture techniques that Cheney green-lit. The result is that we are left on unstable ground when it comes to how we should feel during the first half of the movie. By not settling on a tone for the first half McKay leaves the audience a little unmoored making it hard to know whether to laugh or simply get angry at what Cheney and his friends are doing.
However, the second half of the movie turns towards fully embracing Cheney’s villainy while doubling down on the dark humor that ran beneath the plot of the first half. This allows the comedy and drama to coalesce for the first time, leading to the darkest and most gut-busting jokes of the whole movie. In one moment, when Dick and Lynne contemplate whether or not he should become Vice President, McKay has them deliberate in Shakespearean verse. The absurdity of the olde English is hilarious while also solidifying the Cheneys as a duo in the tradition of the Macbeths. Elsewhere, Cheney and Rumsfeld go out to dinner with a few other policy figures and Alfred Molina makes a cameo as a waiter who offers them the drink specials, which actually happen to be pitches on opening Guantanamo Bay and implementing further torture techniques. It is pitch-black humor in the tradition of Martin McDonagh and Roy Horniman, and it works flawlessly, leaving me wishing that McKay and company had committed to the equal blend of humor and darkness earlier on because its prevalence in the second half was masterful as opposed to the more topical humor that is most often the norm in the first half.
Throughout all this inconsistency what remains marvelous are the performances on display. Christian Bale underwent another shocking physical transition a la The Machinist (2004) or American Hustle (2013) to inhabit Dick Cheney, putting on upwards of forty pounds. Paired with this, he masters the man’s ticks, such as his way of speaking in a jilted and breathy almost grumble. Bale finds his perfect pairing in Adams, who does not resemble Lynne Cheney in the way that Bale becomes Dick, but nonetheless captures an ambition and intensity that recalls Robin Wright’s work on House of Cards (2013-2018). She is not the quiet politician’s wife who is nothing more than pep rally scenery: she wants power even more than her husband, telling their daughters at one point that “whenever you have power people will try and take it away.” When Dick has a heart-attack campaigning for Congress, she steps in and fills in for all his appearances. Together they emulate what we have come to expect from political figures in House of Cards or the Shakespearean court dramas McKay obviously draws on.
Yet this is a true ensemble piece, and although the Cheneys may be at the center, the story is as interested in the people around them. Carrel pulls on his The Office (2005-2013) character Michael Scott to imbue Rumsfeld with the same blend of narcissism and immaturity. He is immediately off-putting when he appears to address the incoming Congressional interns, making crude jokes about women and working on Capitol Hill. Yet he is comically dwarfed by Rockwell’s President Bush, who is side-splittingly funny while also managing to capture the slight chill one must feel when reflecting that such an unqualified and overly privileged man was twice elected to the presidency. He eats M&Ms and rambles about becoming Commissioner of Baseball while Cheney informs him he will take over the search committee for Vice President. Rockwell gives Bush a completely disinterested look: feet kicked up on the table, eyes roving through the room, and a tone of voice that would be better suited for a cookout than an exploratory meeting. Rockwell imbues Bush with a ‘good ‘ole boy’ image straight out of Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985) that is easy to laugh at until you remember the damage he did whilst in the oval office. When Bush shows Cheney around his ranch, and tells Cheney he bought it because Karl Rove told him the voters would like a cowboy. Rockwell struts around in boots and a cowboy hat looking all the while like a child playing dress up, something captured in the way Rockwell holds himself; slouched, sidling along, perking up only at moments to ‘show off’ the ranch to his new buddy Cheney. Rockwell threads the needle between raucous humor and discomfort beautifully, solidifying him as one of the most exciting supporting actors today.
Underscoring all of this is Vice’s obvious connection to today’s America, and McKay sees Cheney as a spiritual and political predecessor to Trumpism. I have no argument there. However, McKay hammers the relation home to such a point that it begins to feel ham-fisted. Whereas showing archive footage of Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, and Hillary Clinton testifying in support of the Iraq War is a sly way to show the continuity of those with political power from then to now, intercutting images of the Syrian refugee crisis, Trump rallies, and the California wildfires with scenes from his tenure as Vice President strays into hyperbole. There is no doubt that Cheney’s influence led to environmental, military, and political policies that helped lead to today’s realities, but McKay seems to hang it solely around Cheney’s neck. I find this troublesome in a number of ways, but mostly because it gives all the power to one man, where in reality our current situation is the result of a system that continues to allow men like Cheney to exert undue influence. It seems a continuation of the issues that plagued the first half of the movie: jumps without enough exploration.
McKay is a talented writer and director. The Big Short is an incredibly well-made film that shows his range, having come from writing and directing the likes of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) and Step Brothers (2008), which are more full-throated comedies than the dark humor of his recent work. He and his casting director assembled a stupidly talented group of people for Vice, and so it is the performances and the handful of truly inspired directorial moments that rise above the movie’s inconsistency to make it worth seeing, even if it cannot be fully absolved of all its missteps.