Vice (United States, 2018)

December 20, 2018
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Vice Poster

Just because someone’s life was interesting as viewed through the lens of the nightly news doesn’t mean it’s worthy of a feature film. Or, in the case of former Vice President Dick Cheney, perhaps the filmmakers’ unwillingness to peel back the layers of media-enhanced hype and find the humanity beneath the caricature is the root of the problem. Whatever the case, Vice feels like a documentary-wannabe that never achieves whatever it’s trying to do. It rehashes events and information that have long been part of the public record and, despite the abundance of acting talent at director Adam McKay’s disposal, none of the characters achieve escape velocity. They are trapped inside the bubbles where we expect them to be. There’s nothing surprising or especially interesting about Vice. It’s a lot like Front Runner in that anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of politics will find the terrain familiar and a little stale.

From the beginning, McKay seems unsure of his mission: Is it to do a deep dive into how Cheney (Christian Bale) manipulated the facts surrounding 9/11 to build a cohesive narrative that led to the invasion of Iraq? Is it to provide a more comprehensive biography of the man’s life, which included decades of civil service with a successful stint in the private sector sandwiched in between? Or it is to lampoon politics in the 2000s and make fun of George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell)? If it was the last of the three, we’ve been there/done that with Oliver Stone’s W, although Vice at least seems a little more even-handed in its presentation of the usual suspects.

The first third of Vice covers Cheney’s early career, including his meeting with Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) and his time working under President Ford (Bill Camp). At times, his Lady Macbeth-ish wife Lynne (Amy Adams) seems more driven than Cheney, who happily moves out of politics and into the public sector once Bill Clinton secures his place in Washington. After a clever faux ending (complete with credits roll), Vice moves into the Bush years, starting with George W.’s attempts to woo the experienced Cheney onto his ticket (and the price exacted by the potential V.P. for agreeing) and proceeding to how Cheney manipulated events post-9/11 to degrade Iraq.

Although the movie contains its share of McKay-esque moments (the aforementioned mid-movie credits sequence to go along with other oddball instances such as the “fantasy” dialogue in which Cheney’s ability to convince others to do anything plays out in front of President Ford), it is more straightforward than the director’s previous political drama/satire, The Big Short. Vice isn’t as insightful, incisive, or original. As an expose of the real reasons behind the invasion of Iraq, Vice relies heavily on public sources and, as a result, the film’s conclusions are muddy. The film also largely ignores the rift that developed between Bush and Cheney during their second term in office – a division that led to the latter experiencing a significant decrease in his power.

Three of the four principals provide credible re-creations of their real-life counterparts: Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, and (of course) Christian Bale as the title character. Oddly, Steve Carell’s Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t recall the man many of us remember from the Bush administration – it’s impossible to say whether this was an artistic choice on the part of the actor and director or whether an attempt failed. (Carell has shown an aptitude for playing real people in the past – his work in Foxcatcher and Battle of the Sexes being a couple of examples.) Bale, known for his willingness to change his physicality in order to become a character, crafts a version of Cheney that looks and sounds more like the former V.P. than it does the actor playing him. As with any performance of this sort, the question of whether it’s more of an “imitation” than a “portrayal” comes into play, but there’s no arguing that the best part of Vice is Bale.

Vice and Front Runner are two peas in a pod – re-creations of recent political theater that don’t need to be exhumed. Well-researched documentaries have already examined nearly every angle of the Bush/Cheney era and Vice doesn’t offer much that’s new or compelling. It appears to have been made for an agitated liberal base that’s fascinated with dredging up Republican sins of the past but one has to wonder whether there’s much of a movie-going audience for this sort of motion picture. With The Big Short, McKay used comedy, sleight-of-hand, and clever storytelling to shine the light into the shadows of the 2007-08 financial crisis. With Vice, his beam isn’t as bright and the darkness isn’t as murky. In the 2018 awards season, Vice is something of an also-ran.

Vice (United States, 2018)

Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Alison Pill, Eddie Marsan, Lily Rabe, Tyler Perry
Home Release Date: 2019-04-02
Screenplay: Adam McKay
Cinematography: Greig Fraser
Music: Nicholas Britell
U.S. Distributor: Annapurna Pictures
Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 2018-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1