My problems with Vice, the writer-director Adam McKay’s zany yet hectoring biopic of Dick Cheney, begin with its title. It might be apt for a movie about Vice Media, for instance. (There would appear to be plenty to work with.) Or perhaps for a film about policing Times Square in the 1970s and ’80s. But as much as the film tries to persuade us otherwise, no one refers to the vice president of the United States as “vice.” Alas, Veep was already taken, and likewise Dick. “Cheney” was presumably too dull, and “VPOTUS” doesn’t track at all. Thus, the oddly off-key Vice.
But astute readers may already have gleaned that my deeper complaint centers on the whole “zany yet hectoring” situation. This is a film whose methods and message are wildly out of sync, one that tries to make you pay attention to an Existential Threat to American Democracy by juggling torches while playing the ukulele. Worse still, it is a film that utterly squanders two rich and thoughtful performances—from Christian Bale and Amy Adams as Dick and Lynne Cheney, respectively—by drowning them out with goofy gimmicks and heavy-handed politicking.
McKay got his start as a writer on Saturday Night Live before moving on to such comedy projects as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. (Perhaps a colon could have saved this title? Vice: The Crimes of Dick Cheney.) In 2015, he went relatively straight, with his offbeat but very clever adaptation of Michael Lewis’s The Big Short.
With Vice, McKay is trying to accomplish the same trick, but he comes up, well, short. In part, this is because The Big Short introduced us to characters with whom few people were familiar, and detailed a story of which we generally knew only the most rudimentary contours. Vice, by contrast, features some of the most-covered figures of the 21st century—George W. Bush, Dick and Lynne Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, etc.—and takes us through events that we are unlikely ever to forget: the 2000 presidential-election recount, 9/11, the Iraq War.
Rather than tamp down his inclination toward wackiness in light of such material, McKay takes it up to 11: His bells are topped with more bells, and his whistles bellow like air horns. The movie features pseudo-Shakespearean soliloquies between Dick and Lynne and a fantasy sequence in which, post-9/11, the VP and his cronies are in a fancy restaurant, having the (policy) menu read to them by the maître d’hôtel: enemy combatant, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay … (“We’ll have them all,” Cheney replies, to laughs on all sides.) Scenes of Cheney fishing are scattered throughout the film, both as homage to one of the biographies McKay drew on—Barton Gellman’s Angler—and as metaphor for Cheney’s patient ability to reel in power. Halfway through the picture there is a fake end-credits sequence, the punchline of which will be known to virtually every viewer before the gag even begins.
The (invented) dialogue between the principal characters less resembles how conservatives actually talk than how liberals sometimes like to imagine they do, full of malice and disdain. And for any who might miss the message, the movie supplies an exceptionally awkward voice-over by everyman Jesse Plemons, who offers such bromides as, “Dick was becoming sharper and sharper as a Washington insider” and “His true calling: He would be a dedicated and humble servant to power.”
What makes this all such a pity is that beneath the overworked, loudspeaker evocations of stories most of us already know lie interesting details of which I suspect we were largely unaware. Everyone, for instance, knows about George W. Bush’s ill-spent youth. But it was news to me that Cheney had been an even greater screwup in his early 20s: expelled from Yale, jailed for drunk driving on more than one occasion, headed nowhere fast if not for the intervention of his then-girlfriend, Lynne. I was also unaware that a central element of Cheney’s hegemonic takeover of Washington, D.C., as vice president involved the acquisition of political real estate: In addition to his office in the West Wing, he had two in the Senate, another in the House, one at the Pentagon, yet another with the CIA …
But the greater shame of McKay’s film is the degree to which it wastes Bale’s and Adams’s performances. Bale in particular vanishes completely into Cheney, especially as he ages into the chunky, bald-and-gray operator of his vice-presidential years. The slow, gravelly intonations, the crooked half-sneer—Bale nails every one. And Cheney’s scenes of tenderness with his family, and especially his lesbian daughter, Mary, are among the best of the film.
As Lynne, Adams is every bit her husband’s equal: firm, determined, the human guardrail that ensured her Dick made something of himself rather than winding up an alcoholic lineman for a power company in Wyoming. As she tells him early in the film, “I can’t go to a big Ivy League school. And I can’t run a company or be a mayor. That’s just the way the world is for a girl. I need you.”
What is perhaps most remarkable about these two performances is that they supply depth and nuance to a film whose director appears to have had no appetite for either quality. (The other principal roles—Steve Carell as Rumsfeld and, especially, Sam Rockwell as Bush—seem in some ways more appropriate to McKay’s impulses: well suited for a flat-out comedy, or perhaps an SNL skit.)
On the most fundamental question of Why did Cheney do the things he did?, McKay settles for the lazy catchall that he merely wanted to acquire power in any way he could. As a newly minted congressional intern, the young Cheney picks the party he wants to work for based on his having enjoyed a presentation by foul-mouthed, then-Representative Rumsfeld. Later, when Cheney is working directly for Rumsfeld—the former was at least 28 at the time—he naively asks his mentor, “What do we believe in?” In response, Rumsfeld guffaws and closes a door in his face. This is, of course, nonsense. Both men have been staunchly conservative throughout their lives.
Similarly, McKay strongly implies that the sole rationale for the Iraq War was profits for oil companies and, especially, for Cheney’s old oil-field service firm, Halliburton. It’s a reading that ignores both the hawkishness that Cheney had imbibed from his Yale professor H. Bradford Westerfield decades earlier and the lessons he took from his tenure as defense secretary during the Gulf War—an experience that goes almost entirely unmentioned in this alleged biopic. This is presumably because Cheney was widely considered to have fulfilled that duty admirably. The movie does find time, however, to pore over the later incident in which he accidentally shot a hunting partner in the face.
To be clear: This review is on no level a brief on behalf of Dick Cheney, who arguably did more damage to the nation and to the world than almost any other living American. But a clumsy, overwrought political polemic—especially one tricked out so extravagantly—is worse than none at all. In a year in which the best films mostly opted for understatement, Vice goes the opposite way in both tone and temper. With The Big Short, McKay threaded a needle by managing to be jokey while still serious, and angry while still entertaining. With Vice, he fails in both directions.