By Marc S. Sanders
Christian Bale is one of the greatest method actors working today. He’ll put on muscle mass for Batman. He’ll shrink himself down to a skeletal 100 pounds for roles in The Mechanic and his Oscar winning turn in The Fighter. In Adam McKay’s new film, Vice, Bale puts the weight to present an uncanny resemblance to former Vice President Dick Cheney. Without Bale and co-star Amy Adams as wife Lynne Cheney, Vice would not succeed. Both will be nominated for Oscars this year. McKay can expect nominations for himself and Best Picture.
McKay approaches Vice similarly to his winning film The Big Short, where a historical debacle of great proportions is told from a comedic approach. However, the gags of Vice don’t necessarily measure up to the absurdity of the real estate investment collapse of The Big Short. Cheney’s accomplishments were just too sad, too tragic, too shocking to laugh at entirely.
Dick Cheney was a drunk who suffered multiple heart attacks. He got kicked out of Yale University. His daughter, Mary, is gay. His other daughter, Liz, went into politics herself and dismissed her sister’s sexual orientation. Dick has remained married to his very wise and very aggressive wife Lynne who more or less rescued him from a wasted life. Dick Cheney shot his close friend accidentally while hunting, and never apologized for it. He was fortunate to receive a heart transplant that continues to prolong his life, and Dick Cheney became Vice President of the United States for two terms. You don’t have to like the guy but you have to admit he’s got a colorful past.
It’s all in the movie. Immediately, McKay puts in a few words of a byline that this film is based on fact to best of their knowledge but they more or less tried their fucking best.
My impression of what could be considered a very divisive film was actually not divisive to me at all actually. Bale along with McKay’s screenplay show a Dick Cheney who truly sees no other way to carry on a political career than with a silent yet ruthless touch. Later, it required more aggressive tactics not labeled as torture and not appearing beyond his authority even if he is only the Vice President. Bale has the voice down, the walk and as noted before the appearance. This film will likely win Best Makeup.
Having recently seen three potential nominees for Best Actress in The Favorite, I have to say Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney beats them all. This is not an Amy Adams we’ve seen before. Lynne is depicted as smart, aware in a mindset of no nonsense bullshit. She gets the job done, and if she had her way she’d take the job herself but she’s aware of her limits as a woman. Adams easily shows her Lady Macbeth in a scene where daughter Mary reveals herself as gay. Dick promises to love Mary no matter what. Adams as Lynne does not. Adams offers an expression that kills. Right there in this scene is her Oscar moment. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.
Back to Macbeth for a moment, McKay has a great imagination for gags including elevating the fantasy of Dick and Lynne reciting MacBeth to each other in bed while mulling the possibility of becoming George W Bush’s running mate. It’s more than that for Dick. Both know this is absolute power…finally. I’d accept if their decision to run came down to something like this. It takes an ego trip to obtain power after all. If you’ve already been denied power before, the power trip only becomes more powerful on another occasion.
The Shakespeare gag works. Some others fall a little flat. Some really win. Out of the blue, prior to running on Bush’s ticket, McKay wraps up the first portion of Cheney’s life and literally rolls end credits. Then a phone rings and Cheney’s biggest story begins. The end credits moment is a great psyche out.
Vice is not a perfect movie. A huge misfire occurs midway through the end credits that derails McKay’s best effort at a neutral point of view for the Republican. It’s a moment that screams of present day chaos of opinion. McKay said screw it and folded his hand to take advantage of showing how he really feels. Before this scene, McKay and his cast embraced the Cheneys despite their hard to swallow viewpoints and actions. If you are going to make a movie about Dick Cheney or Barack Obama or Mickey Mouse you, as the storyteller, have to develop an appreciation for the centerpiece. If all you are going to do is bash and mudsling, then perhaps you are not qualified to tell the tale. McKay failed at the finish line.
Still, the journey is always interesting. There are things to learn here, things to recollect and things to question how it all came to be a reality.
A good cast is offered including a surprising appearance by Tyler Perry as Colin Powell; make a movie about this guy and get Perry back. Steve Carrell plays a buffoonish Don Rumsfeld. Was Rumsfeld this stupid and this haphazard? I don’t know. McKay uses him to play the fool and the jester. I doubt Rumsfeld has a loyal fan base ready to wave pitch forks. So who cares, really? It’s in the past.
A casting misfire is Sam Rockwell. Moviegoers are too familiar with the real George W. Bush especially in 2018 following the loss of his parents and his deeply appreciated eulogies. Rockwell teeters on 12:45 am Saturday Night Live material, as he chomps down on chicken wings, with a good ol’ boy Texas dialect. I know people want to believe Bush 43 was this stupid. I’m just not ready to accept that. Ironically, a producer on this project is Will Farrell, widely known for his George W Bush on SNL. Farrell would have been a better George here.
Compliments also go to Jesse Plemons as a narrator with an unknown connection to Cheney. Plemons’ delivery plays well on an even keel.
Vice is a complicated film about a hard man to like with little to know redeeming qualities. Adam McKay is cornering the market on films about American absurdities of the past. He’s good at this kind of filmmaking. This isn’t his best film but it still works. Just get ready to leave the theatre as the real end credits roll. Again, it’s a moment that serves the film’s worst flaw as McKay leaves his imagination at the door. Everything before that was right on track. Adam McKay…next time, don’t think too hard.