Everything about “Vice,” the fast moving, cluttered and too long biopic of Dick Cheney from director Adam McKay, looks good on paper.
You’ve got star Christian Bale packing on the pounds to look eerily like Cheney, complete with constant smirk and deadpan monotone delivery. You’ve got Steve Carell offering a giddy, maniacal take on Donald “Rummy” Rumsfeld, who seems be having fun even when he’s falling from power. Also Sam Rockwell, fresh off his Oscar win, takes on the well-worn role of likable party dunce, George W. Bush. And in a head-scratcher that somehow works, Tyler Perry as the restrained military general, Colin Powell.
But the main thing you get is an angry director with a set agenda that colors every frame: McKay's goal seems to be showing his sincere revulsion for both Cheney, who is painted as one of history’s most underrated villains, and the American public which was too stupid, overworked and distracted -- pop culture moments such as “Survivor” and the “Wassup?” commercials get nods -- to protest as Cheney molded the vice-president’s office into the most influential and corrupt job in the world.
The film covers a lot of ground, time-wise, and one of its most salient points is its depiction of the rise of Fox News and how marketing techniques became successful tools for politicians to easily dupe Americans into supporting unpalatable ideas. We see a marketing whiz try out euphemisms on a test audience with the winning phrases instantly repeated on television news shows. (Side note: As I waited in the popcorn line at Bow Tie before the movie, author, CNN political commentator and President Obama's special advisor for green jobs, Van Jones stood in front of me, with a few people asking for photos.)
But what bothered me about "Vice" was that, sadly for a biopic, the bio really isn’t there. There’s a brief look at a young, brawl-happy Cheney, booted from Yale for drinking, which leads to a dead-end job, DUI arrest and his motivated wife Lynne, played with Mid-Western verve by Amy Adams, demanding that Dick straighten up and fly right. We’re then to believe that, out of his deep love for her, Cheney headed straight to Washington bent on world domination. Everything else in the movie is pretty much common knowledge, if you were reading anything at the time, some of it having even been dramatized before in Oliver Stone’s Bush biopic, “W.” If you're looking for insight on what really drove Cheney to keep coming back for more, good luck. The best this film can offer is fly-fishing metaphors, which I suppose means the thrill of sport.
The movie does argue that Lynne was the driving force, or the true power behind the throne; there’s even a comedic Shakespearean bedroom bit that’s purposely on the nose. No other explanation is explored for Cheney’s insatiable hunger for power which found him securing key roles in the Nixon, Ford, and, of course, Bush White House, surrounded by henchmen whose names you will remember -- Scooter Libby, Paul Wolfowitz -- presented here mostly as caricatures. Cheney is usually either enjoying the outdoors, having a heart attack (a reoccurring gag line in the movie) or recklessly destroying the world. The script doesn’t dig much deeper than old headlines and fares better when it has fun with the subject, rather than connecting the dots for us, the dim-witted public.
Always the quiet loyalist, Cheney was also head of Halliburton, a period that goes largely unexplored, coming up only as the clear reasoning for invading Iraq (“They gave me [$26] million, double what we thought,” he says cheerfully on the phone while describing his parting gift when he left to join the Bush campaign).
Like 2015’s “The Big Short,” McKay’s superior film that illuminated a complex financial crisis by way of a spitfire ride among very human brokers, “Vice” wants to be a darkly funny movie about a serious subject, as well as a tutorial on how power works today. But it’s the dramatic equivalent of a Michael Moore documentary, stopping the narrative flow many times to teach the audience why what Cheney just did was so evil.
It's also a bit tonally challenged: the dark humor and narrative fourth-wall breaking alternates with jolting Iraq explosions, torture shots and a gruesome close-up into Cheney’s empty chest cavity as he lays on an operating table awaiting a heart transplant – by the end, it all just feels queasy and pedantic. To be fair, the filmmaker warns the viewer at the beginning of the movie that this was a secretive guy (we did “our fucking best”) then proceeds to bludgeon us with behind-the-scenes interpretations of Cheney’s lust for power and thinly veiled rage. But it comes at the cost of a deeper, more human portrait of a man who seems to have loved his family but few others. Cheney was barely human, more of a grumpy corporate monster, the movie seems to say.
This final conclusion somehow feels too simple: Like a modern-day Grinch, here was a man whose malfunctioning heart was a few sizes too small – or from the close-up shot of Cheney's removed heart on a table, just plain rotten.