McKay, Bale eviscerate Cheney in ‘Vice’

January 14, 2019

Some actors have a unique ability to transcend their own international celebrity and slip away into characters so gracefully that, slowly and without realizing, you begin to think you’re watching a cameo. Christian Bale, the shapeshifting Welsh actor from films like the “The Dark Knight,” “American Psycho,” and “The Big Short,” is that kind of thespian.

And Adam McKay, the writer and director of the new Dick Cheney biopic “Vice,” certainly gave Bale a character worthy of his brilliance. But while highly enjoyable, a shallow analysis of the the most powerful vice president in American history made “Vice” play more like a monster movie than a biography.

After McKay’s brilliant crash-course on the collapse of the U.S. housing market in “The Big Short,” “Vice,” ought to come with the warning that, while keeping close to the historical record and making some effort to unpack complicated bureaucratic concepts, it is not a documentary. One might even say that the films credentials as a biopic are thin, given the overwhelming focus on all the terrible things Cheney was able to do with the reins of government, rather than the man who held them.      

Two scenes early in the film stand out as the major character defining moments for Cheney. The first comes before he enters the political arena, just after he’s been kicked out of Yale University for drinking and fighting. The young Cheney, who is hanging phone lines for a living in his hometown of Casper, Wyoming and drinking himself into a nightly stuper, is arrested for driving under the influence. His wife, Lynne, played by the talented Amy Adams, bails him out of jail and gives Dick an ultimatum: get your life together and become a man that she and their future children can be proud of, or she’s gone.

Lynne reminds Dick that a woman in the early sixties is not destined to become a CEO of a large company or hold esteemed public office, and he would have to fill that void, not for himself, but for the two of them. In that moment he vows to never again disappoint Lynne, taking her ambition into his own hands.

“While highly enjoyable, a shallow analysis of the most powerful vice president in American history made ‘Vice’ play more like a monster movie than a biography.”

The film skips over Dick’s journey back to school to redirect his life and drops us in the beginning of the Nixon administration, where he works as a special assistant to then-Nixon cabinet member Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld, as McKay’s narrator explains, wields his power like a “master of the butterfly knife,” with complete disregard for culture of statesmanship in Washington.    

“If you get in his way,” the narrator warns, “he will cut you.”

Cast brilliantly with Steve Carrell, Rumsfeld is portrayed as the father figure that shapes Cheney’s view on power and politics. In one defining scene, Rumsfeld and Cheney are walking the halls of the White House when Cheney, struggling to find the right words, asks his mentor, “what do we believe?” Rumsfeld busts out into laughter and, without saying anything, disappears into his office, cackling like only Carrell can.

And for the most part, this is all we get to explain the philosophy that drives the Cheney machine in a mad pursuit of power — power for power’s sake. Cheney’s life’s calling, says the narrator, is to be a “humble servant to power.” That is, until he’s ready to take it for himself.

From an ideological perspective, McKay offers us next to nothing to evaluate Cheney. It’s clear that Cheney is anti-regulation, as we see in a montage of then-Congressman Cheney (representing Wyoming’s sole congressional district) voting against every bill that found its way onto the House floor, but this isn’t sold as a man voting with his conscience. Instead, McKay paints a picture of a budding lobbying industry rolling into Washington, D.C. to take advantage of a power monger Cheney (and others like him), who took their money and rose through the ranks of the government.

This all helps build Cheney into a monster-like character, but nothing more. He is driven solely by his wife’s will and operates solely on the advice of whoever filled out his bank account and private interests most. The real Vice President Cheney’s strong belief in the United States as world’s rightful and sole superpower, virtually unrestricted executive authority, and U.S. military intervention as a solution to much of the worlds problems never get the credit they deserve. These ideas were central to Cheney the man, not just the offices he served — and that’s what made him so dangerous.

The film employs a bizarre, yet brilliant, style similar to that of “The Big Short,” frequently dropping out of the main plot to breakdown broader themes and concepts. In “The Big Short,” McKay puts Margot Robbie, playing herself, in a bubble bath with a glass of Champagne for no other reason than to explain subprime mortgages to the audience. The same rollercoaster of information and entertainment in “Vice” serves to bang home the films thesis that Cheney is the greatest anti-hero in American history, and nobody knew it.    

In one scene, Cheney pitches an idea to then-President Gerald R. Ford and members of his senior staff: walk out onto the White House lawn with miniature wigs on their penises and have a circle jerk. They all love it.   

As McKay tells it, Cheney’s monotone, bureaucratic stylings gave him the “superpower” of seeming measured, no matter how ridiculous his ideas were. Again, McKay isn’t making a documentary, he’s making a point. Cheney is an evil genius with the power and skillset to employ devastating, irrational policy and stonewall good governance.

If making the insane seem rational is Cheney’s superpower, his weapon in the film is the unitary executive theory, which the film spends quite a bit of time explaining. The unitary executive theory, which is brought to Cheney’s attention in the film by a young Antonin Scalia working in the White House counsel’s office, is an interpretation of the Article 2 in the U.S. Constitution that gives the president unlimited executive authority.      

While important and entertaining, and bolstered by Oscar-worthy performances from Bale, Adams and Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush (the best W impersonation I’ve ever seen), the film still misses the point here. Cheney didn’t seek out the unitary executive theory merely as a tool to levy power — he genuinely believed in it.

So if you’re a bleeding-heart liberal looking to watch one of your party’s great political rivals get clubbed over the head for a couple hours, “Vice” is for you. If not, McKay’s biopic serves as little more than a vicious personal takedown of a vice president that most of us knew little about in the first place.

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