“Vice” Movie Review


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     Writer / Director Adam McKay’s “Vice” seeks to bring light to a person and story of which has already been thoroughly explored.  A surprising move as a follow up to his Academy Award winning 2015 film “The Big Short”.  “Vice” is a seething takedown of Vice President Dick Cheney, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 - 2009 and was said to be the most powerful VP in our history.  I suppose it’s not overly shocking McKay chose to go this route, particularly considering the daily takedown of our current President, why not make a film about a former leader and destroy his image too?  Everyone is doing it after all.  Not that Cheney needed any help in that regard, since he left office with an approval rating that hovered around 13%.  Fact is, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore previously fired many of these shots in his massively successful 2004 documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11”, doing so without the need to engage in what comes off as a Hollywood costume party.

     There is one glaring issue with “Vice” that I have to figure will turn off most audiences, and the reasoning behind the problem is actually found in “The Big Short”.  In that film, the story centers around subject matter nearly every person in this country can gravitate to: The Recession of 2008.  Talk to anyone and you’ll likely hear a story involving tremendous financial loss that had significant ramifications on their lives moving forward.  And in some cases, even now ten years later, they have yet to fully recover.  Now given “The Big Short” is a dramatic dissection of the reasons the recession was caused, the film tends to be a major punch to the gut.  For all it’s comedic aspects and stellar performances (many of whom also appear in “Vice”), “The Big Short” pisses you off and thus strikes the kind of emotional chord few films are successful in achieving.  

     “Vice “ on the other hand plays like old news.  Regardless of your politics, the likelihood of you caring for this kind of material is low.  And it’s not like anyone entering the theater will leave with a different opinion or outlook anyway.  Doing a politically charged biopic can only accomplish two things:  Illicit cheers from one side and groans from the other.  And given McKay utilizes essentially the same style and filter as he did in “The Big Short”, the resulting tone simply doesn’t match the material.  With Cheney depicted as a monotone introverted wise guy, the serious nature of the issues explored don’t mesh well with the smart ass detours McKay likes to take every few scenes.  If anything, the filmmakers should have sided with a tone more akin to last year’s “Darkest Hour”, rather than reverting to the silly antics of McKay’s “Anchorman” days.

     On the positive side, “Vice” boasts an engaging performance from a shapeshifting and unrecognizable Christian Bale as Vice President Dick Cheney.  The actor, who has said he gained 45 pounds for the role, delivers yet another memorable character, even if this one was likely conceived from heaping amounts of embellishment.  The early years scream by as we see a drunken Yale flunky who somehow makes his way to a Congressional internship working for then Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).  The story moves forward via a nifty plot device courtesy of our narrator named Kurt (played by Jesse Plemons), making stops at most of Cheney’s various posts within the government, including President Ford’s Chief of Staff, and President George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense.  Along the way, Cheney is accompanied by his smart and quite ambitious wife Lynne (Amy Adams), as they navigate the political landscape, complete with all of the typical backstabbing and pitfalls we are accustomed to seeing, in much the same way the similar Frank and Claire Underwood do in Netflix’s “House of  Cards.”

     But there are no bombshells, nor tidbits of compelling information presented anywhere in the 132 minute run time.  About half way through, George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) is introduced as a secondary character and a backyard meeting between him and Cheney ultimately results in the two becoming running mates and defeating Al Gore in the 2000 election.  When 9/11 happens less than a year later, the story delves into the core of its purported existence by presenting several layers of Cheney’s power pulpit including multiple offices in and around the most important parts of Washington D.C., the angling of various constitutional legal opinions that give the Executive Branch more power, and the inevitable mentioning of the U.S. engaging in torture tactics during the war on terror.  Again, regardless of your individual take on things, isn’t all of this something we’ve left in the past?

     The reason McKay’s “The Big Short” worked so well is the characters being portrayed on screen were not people who have remained in the public eye for decades.  The crimes committed by those behind our financial ruin were done by faceless men who were too cowardly to be on the forefront of anything, choosing instead to hide behind the scenes within their deregulated and well protected existence.  With costumed political satire airing each week on Saturday Night Live,  transforming stars into well known political figures in the film world, particuarly when the person is from our recent and contentious history, is clearly a tricky proposition as it opens up the character to instant and unforgiving scrutiny.  That fact does “Vice” no favors.

     Now I know the probability of cooperation from the Cheney family would be highly unlikely, but the material here is clearly better suited for the documentary format, so as to hear the facts and opinions from those directly involved with Vice President Cheney.  The filmmakers themselves even open the film by saying Cheney was a secretive politician and thus they “did their f**king best” to tell his story and the events depicted accurately.  And that’s the film’s biggest problem.  How can you tell a story without having walked in this man’s shoes?  How can you possibly portray what Cheney was thinking in the decision room as 9/11 was going on in real time, without the man himself weighing in?  It’s at that point you begin to wonder how much fiction and conjecture was necessary to fill out the script.  GRADE: C