The Hippo


Jun 24, 2019








Vice (R)
Film Reviews by Amy


 Christian Bale goes full for-your-Oscar-consideration in his portrayal of Dick Cheney in Vice, writer/director Adam McKay's case against the former vice president.

What McKay appears to be doing with Vice is appealing to history: here is a view of this person (Cheney) and what he did and what these actions mean for us today. A good way to judge whether or not this movie is “for you” might be to consider McKay's The Big Short and decide if that approach plus this material is something you can spend two-plus hours with. I think “no” is a perfectly valid answer. I also don't think you have to agree with all aspects of McKay's pitch or with his opinion about what he's covering to enjoy the movie (or at least find it an interesting watch).

When we see young Yale dropout Dick Cheney (Bale, who won the Golden Globe for this role) in the 1960s, he's wasting his life and getting yelled at by his eventual wife Lynne (Amy Adams) for wasting her time and the potential that being male in mid-20th century America affords him. Pull yourself together or I'm going to find another man to make successful, is essentially her message to him. (And this speech she gives to him and her approach to his career throughout are worthy of their own movie. I've thought more about that and what it means — how many “great men” have been the product of their own abilities plus the possibly greater talents of wives who had to use their husbands as outlets for ambitions they weren't allowed to pursue? — than any other part of this movie.)

Cheney gets himself right and soon he finds himself in Nixon's Washington working for congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Proving himself useful and loyal, Cheney rides the Rumsfeld wagon into the White House but, thanks to staff politics, is lucky to be clear of Nixon when he is forced to resign. Cheney then works for Gerald Ford, eventually becoming chief of staff. After Ford loses his election, Cheney wins a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives despite a less than magnetic personal style (another point in the story that caused me to wonder if this story started in 2003 instead of 1963 would the Cheney who was the titular Vice be Lynne rather than Dick?).

Throughout his career, Cheney focuses on issues including energy policy and the military, both as an elected and as an appointed government official and then in the private sector. As the movie presents it, he always has in the back of his mind the idea of the potential to vastly expand the powers of the president with the unitary executive theory. Though Cheney never gets to be president himself, he finds a vehicle for trying out this power in George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell), so the movie argues.

Vice feels like an artifact — this is 2018 in American politics, with its particular view on the last 40 years of history and development of the presidency and the Republican party. I feel like if I go back and watch this in 10 years, I will be able to tap in to the 2018 feel, even in the way it shows the events of the mid-1970s or the Reagan era or the wars of the Bush administration. So much of this movie felt, to me, not like a narrative so much as an argument. I see what the movie is saying and I understand what it is using as evidence but that isn't quite the same thing as watching a story unfold.

While Vice lacks strong narrative flow, however, it has very strong performances. Bale's Cheney feels very spot-on, in terms of mannerisms and speech style. I don't know how close Bale is to the actual Cheney but his Cheney feels fully formed, like a character you could understand even if you didn't know much about the actual person. Amy Adams’ Lynne is also well fleshed out, doing with single lines or looks enough to give you a sense of the public person and the interior life.

The movie has several strong supporting performances as well: Carell's Rumsfeld, Rockwell's Bush and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell all bring a little something to these people we think we already know. To some degree all they need to do to get by is look enough like those people, but each of these actors brings some degree of personality and motivations.

And the movie has some fun with itself, much in the style of The Big Short's “Margot Robbie explains complicated financial devices while in a bathtub” scene. There are some flights of fancy, a somewhat cutesy device for delivering narration and exposition and a nice little fake-out in the middle of the movie. I feel like a lot of what Vice does with its storytelling style isn't necessarily good or bad but it will, I think, come down to taste. I feel like 12 years ago I would have loved this approach to a historical biopic and six years ago it would have annoyed me and today I'm fine with it, neither walking out of the theater mid-movie nor stopping people on the street to rave about its brilliance.

And “fine” is my takeaway for the movie as well and all its many parts: that's fine, that's kinda cute, that's a little long. It's the performances that push it a few notches beyond. B

Rated R for language and some violent images, according to the MPAA. Written and directed by Adam McKay, Vice is two hours and 12 minutes long and is distributed by Annapurna Pictures.

Amy Diaz 

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