The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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Second Rate Film about a Second Banana

Christian Bale
Christian Bale
Annapurna Pictures
 132 Minutes
Directed by: Adam McKay
Starring: Christian Bale, Amy Adams   

After helming a series of well-received but shallow comedies like Anchorman, Talladega, Nights, and Step Brothers, Adam McKay turned his attention in 2015 to a much more serious subject, the 2008 Great Recession brought on by a collapse in the housing market. Although other films had covered the topic, they had focused on the complex financial machinations involved, resulting in movies that at times resembled economics lectures. Despite the serious consequences of the crash, McKay realized that there was an element of dark humor in the monumental greed that fueled the collapse. The result was The Big Short, a film that won McKay a Best Screenplay Oscar. Now, he’s back in his new movie Vice, taking on another serious subject, the rise to power of Vice President Dick Cheney in the George W. Bush administration. But despite an astonishing transformation by star Christian Bale, who winds up embodying Cheney perfectly, Vice is somewhat of a hit-and-miss project with some painfully bad attempts at silly humor.


The movie follows Dick Cheney from his early days a carousing college student who flunked out of Yale. His future wife Lynne (Amy Adams) manages to straighten him out somewhat, and he gets involved in politics, starting as an intern with Congressman Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Cheney views the back-stabbing Rumsfeld as a good role model with a sympatico point of world view. As Rumsfeld moves up the ladder in the Nixon administration, Cheney moves along with him, eventually becoming Chief of Staff under Gerald Ford. But when the Democrats retake the White House in 1976, Cheney and Rumsfeld are out.


To stay involved in politics, the rather uncharismatic Cheney runs for Congress in Wyoming, and, with the help of Lynne stepping in to politic for him when he suffers a heart attack, he wins. Later, when Clinton wins the Presidency, Cheney retires from politics and accepts the position of CEO at Halliburton. That would seem to be the end of Cheney’s political career (a point McKay makes by running a fake closing credit scroll at this point in Vice). But, when George W. Bush approaches him to be Vice President (see clip below), Cheney realizes that he can reshape the power structure in Washington to make the office far more powerful than in previous administrations, Democratic and Republican alike.


Soon after Bush and Cheney take office, the country is rocked by the 9/11 bombings. Cheney sees this as a significant opportunity to get access to Iraq’s oil reserves for Halliburton and other like-minded companies, so he begins hunting for “proof” that Iraq was partly responsible for the attack. After Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) delivers a speech to the U.N., the country finally goes to war, only to find that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction as claimed and that the war is far more time consuming and expensive than first thought. Eventually, Cheney’s old mentor Rumsfeld, who had become Bush’s Secretary of Defense, is made the fall guy and forced to resign, while Cheney’s career ends under a cloud.


As in The Big Short, the story of Dick Cheney’s rise and pursuit of power is a cautionary, sometimes shocking tale (of course, Adam McKay’s liberal point of view shapes both movies, so neither is an unbiased portrayal), but unlike McKay’s earlier film, Vice contains relatively few natural opportunities for humor. Donald Rumsfeld’s sleazy tactics are easy for Steve Carell to lampoon, making in a bizarre offshoot of Carell’s The Office character. McKay also turns George W. Bush’s character into an easily manipulated, semi-buffoon, much in keeping with McKay mainstay Will Ferrell’s take on the character.


Occasionally, however, McKay goes way beyond the pale in creating bizarre situations, such as having Alfred Molina appear in a cameo as a restaurant waiter who describes what’s on the torture menu. If audiences hadn’t already picked up on the comparisons of Lynne and Dick Cheney to Lady Macbeth and her husband, McKay has the two segue into Shakespearean dialogue while in a hospital bed. Strangest of all is the film’s employment of an “everyman” narrator, Jesse Plemons, whose connection with Cheney becomes clear later in the movie. All of these distractions only serve to dilute what little humor the film has and make it more confusing.


Fortunately, McKay is blessed with a brilliant cast in fine form, especially Christian Bale. Although his uncanny makeup helps (Vice should be a shoo-in for Best Makeup Oscar), Bale’s performance is excellent as well, especially given the difficult task of playing a character who rarely shows much extreme emotion. Amy Adams gets to show considerably more emotion as Lynne, but she fits perfectly into the power wife mode, well-aware of who she is in bed with.


While many film biographies are called “warts and all” portrayals, it’s probably best to characterize Vice as a “virtues and all” portrayal. Just as Superman had a kryptonite weakness, Cheney, too, had a flaw, at least with the ultraconservative branch of the electorate that formed his power base. His daughter Mary (Allison Pill) was gay, a fact that came out before he ran for vice president, and, for a long time, he was very supportive of her lifestyle in public, breaking with Republican Party dogma on the issue. The father’s love for his daughter is sincere and not just a political stunt. However, Mary’s sexuality eventually drives the family apart when Cheney’s other daughter Liz (Lilly Rabe) successfully runs for office, including an anti-gay-marriage stance in her platform. It’s a fascinating subplot in a movie that could have delved into the matter more, were McKay not so intent on mining the material for a handful of laughs.


Adam McKay has an excellent ensemble cast in Vice who deliver bravura performances in that should keep the actors interested in the selections come Oscar Night. But all the acting firepower in the world can’t compensate for a film that was a bad idea from the start. This movie misfires often and in major ways, with some of the biggest sequences in the film falling completely flat. As a result, those looking for a serious examination of the Cheney years in the White House instead of Dick and Lynne reciting Shakespeare from a hospital bed still have to wait. Despite its many assets, Vice simply isn’t as virtuous a film as it should be.

In this clip, Christian Bale accepts Sam Rockwell's offer of the vice presidency.

Read other reviews of Vice: 

Vice (2018) on IMDb