Saturday 5 January 2019

Movie Review: Vice (2018)

A biography of former US Vice President Dick Cheney, Vice is too glib for its own good and ultimately an inelegant hack job.

A prologue shows Cheney (Christian Bale) hustled into a White House safe room during the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks and issuing an order to shoot down any threatening aircraft. The film then starts with Cheney as a blue collar worker in Wyoming circa 1963, more interested in getting drunk and starting fights than supporting his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). She issues an ultimatum, he shapes up, and by 1969 is a White House intern assigned to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell).

A savvy politician and advisor to President Nixon, Rumsfeld teaches Cheney the ropes. By the 1980s Cheney himself is elected to Congress as a Wyoming representative and in the Reagan and Bush Senior eras establishes his power base as an influential Republican politician. Lynne and Dick are supportive when their daughter Mary announces she is gay. He retires from public life and becomes CEO of Halliburton, living a wealthy and comfortable life. Until George W. Bush calls, asking Cheney to be his running mate in the 2000 presidential election.

Director Adam McKay hit the bull's eye with 2015's The Big Short, skewering the 2008 financial crisis with a brash and irreverent style. But while The Big Short was based on an excellent book, McKay himself wrote Vice, and his more outlandish tendencies are unconstrained, stepping out of bounds early and often.

"We tried our f***cking best", proclaims the bro-level opening credit in reference to the difficulty portraying Cheney's secretive life, and faux-credits start to roll with a musical flourish halfway through the film, as the Cheneys enjoy their idyllic life before the vice presidency comes calling. Dick and Lynne are portrayed exchanging Shakespearean prose as he mulls over the possibility of accepting Bush's offer. By the end of the film, everything from the inner city opioid crisis to global warming, passing through the international refugee crisis, has been laid at Cheney's feet.

More troublesome is McKay's inability to bring anything new to understanding his subject. Even for those just vaguely familiar with Cheney's reputation as a shady right-wing politician will learn precious little from Vice. His transformation from blue collar bumpkin to White House intern happens off-screen, as does his ascendancy to Halliburton's top ladder. Whatever events shaped his thinking and policies, dark as they are, are left unattended.

Instead McKay's introduces an undefined narrator, and then dallies for many minutes on irrelevant heart surgery and fishing details (Cheney hooks and reels in his political targets, presented in colour-by-numbers with monosyllabic instructions for the slower members of the audience).

The better moments include the two scenes of interaction with Bush, as Cheney senses his opportunity to move close to the nexus of power, and a menacing Christian Bale performance, making use of a jaw dropping physical transformation and Darth Vader as inspiration. Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell are largely wasted and reduced to sideshows, both slowly disappearing from relevance.

Vice takes aim at an easy target, but misses with a combination of insolence and arrogance.

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