To say that Dick Cheney was a controversial figure in American politics would be an understatement. The Vice President under George W. Bush yielded more power than any other Vice President in history, using that power to help institute some of the most deplorable policies in the nation’s checkered history. The life of Cheney is now the subject of a biopic that is certain to be as controversial as its subject in writer-director Adam McKay’s Vice. Most attention paid to Vice will be given to Christian Bale’s incredible transformative performance as Dick Cheney. That shouldn’t distract from the fact that McKay’s Vice is a stirring polemic with a wry sense of absurdist humor running through it.
The film doesn’t focus on a single aspect of Cheney’s life, opting instead to cover various moments of note that brought the controversial veep into the halls of power. In the first few scenes, Vice bounces between Dick Cheney (Bale) heading to secure location in the aftermath of the attacks on 9/11 and him getting arrested for DUI during his younger, wilder days in Wyoming. The second DUI was a breaking point for the younger Cheney, as he had been booted from prestigious colleges and taken to dangerous work on powerlines. His wife Lynne (Amy Adams) presents him with an ultimatum to get his act together or else.
A few years later, Cheney got his act together and became a congressional intern, working his way into the office of Representative Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). Working with Rumsfeld and navigating the Nixon White House gives Cheney a taste of power and influence in the tightly knit world of Republican politics. At first Cheney is a bit green and uncertain of the ideology of which he’s aligned himself, going as far to ask Rumsfeld “What do we believe?” Rumsfeld laughs at the naivety of the young Cheney. It’s a question worth asking in relation to the Republican Party in the years since the Nixon administration, as any form of ideology has taken a backseat to the hunger for raw power.
Tying together the various threads of Cheney’s life in McKay’s film is the narration by Kurt (Jesse Plemons), a character whose relationship to Cheney is obscured for most of the running time. This different kind of narrator frees McKay and Vice from any biopic conventions, allowing the film to jump back and forth in time or for explanations of seemingly complicated political jargon. One aspect that Vice pays a lot of attention to is the unitary executive theory, and how a loose interpretation of Article II of the Constitution grants the president broad powers especially during wartime. Like he did with The Big Short, McKay discovers creative ways to explain the various actions and consequences of policy.
After the fall of the Nixon White House, Rumsfeld and Cheney find themselves working within the Ford White House, Rummy as Secretary of Defense and Cheney taking the reins as Chief of Staff. When Ford loses his reelection bid, Cheney runs for the House of Representative as Wyoming’s lone representative. For 10 years he toes the Republican line, voting for deregulation and voting against anything running opposite of conservative orthodoxy. Under President George H.W. Bush, Cheney becomes Secretary of Defense. As he rises the ranks of the Republican Party, Cheney begins to have White House aspirations, though those are dashed by low polling numbers and the fact that social conservatives would likely shun him after his daughter Mary (Alison Pill) comes out as gay. The scene where Mary comes out is a striking moment in the film, one where McKay is able to illustrate a moment of tender humanity within a politician known for his gruff, abrasive persona. Despite the political toll, Dick Cheney accepts his daughter for who she is.
When it seems that his political life is ending, Dick Cheney takes the job as CEO of Haliburton. This moment in Dick Cheney’s life leads to one of the wildest, most audacious moments I’ve ever seen in a biopic, one that I won’t dare spoil the astonishing surprise. That time in the private sector doesn’t last too long as soon the phone rings. George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) needs a seasoned Republican to be on his ticket for the 2000 presidential campaign. At first Cheney declines, knowing that the position is mostly a hollow honorary title. However, his recollection of the unitary executive theory makes him realize that the position could be so much more than for show, and he strikes a deal with Bush to join the ticket.
Once in the Bush administration, Adam McKay unleashes his white hot rage at the outrages committed by Bush and Cheney. In examining the tumultuous years and their lingering scars on American history, McKay turns Vice into more than just an examination of a controversial figure in Cheney but broadens the scope to examine the broader Republican operation from the conservative media apparatus, the highly funded think tanks, polling operations, and use of the judiciary. Cheney is just a single player – a major one – in an operation that has been slowly building its power and influence over decades, resulting in policies that have been disastrous for many and beneficial to few while creating a bigger divide than at any other time in history with the exception of the Civil War.
Of course, Vice will be written off as another liberal screed from liberal Hollywood as they scheme to take down the noble and virtuous Dick Cheney. McKay never even attempts to hide his viewpoint of his subjects in this film, which makes the film transparent in its portrayals. Even accusations of historical inaccuracy will fall flat as the opening titles clearly state that McKay and company have tried their best to tell a true story about a secretive man, clearly stating “We tried our fucking best.” Be sure to stay through the credits as there’s a bonus scene where McKay clearly tackles accusations of bias in the film in a humorous manner. There are some stories that should be explored in a balanced, objective manner. This, however, is not one of those stories, and attempting to do so would remove all of the more brazen elements that make Vice resonant beyond its conclusion.
Christian Bale delivers some of the finest work of his illustrious career as Dick Cheney. Typically, I find gaining or losing an excessive amount of weight for a role a gimmick to gain awards consideration. Bale will certainly garner awards consideration but it’s not because of his physical transformation but for the way he becomes Cheney through his voice and mannerisms in a way that borders on eerie. The rest of the cast delivers strong work, but everyone is working in the shadow of Bale’s immense performance. At this point I just don’t see how anyone will be walking away with a statuette for Best Actor on Oscar night.
Vice is the kind of movie that inflame all sorts of passions in all sorts of viewers. Some might object to the aggressive docudrama style that McKay brings to his unconventional biopic. Some might object to the political leanings of its creative team. Some might object to the more outlandish aspects that McKay injects to the film. But regardless of how people react, Vice is a masterwork by Adam McKay, who has quickly transitioned from being a great comedic director to one of the best political filmmakers of the modern era. Through the examination of one man’s life, Vice examines decades of political action that led us to the point we’re in right now. This is a film with no room for subtlety. Vice can be shocking, hilarious, tragic, and absurd. I can’t think of a better reflection of the fractured America Dick Cheney left behind.
Led by an incredible performance by Christian Bale, Adam McKay’s Vice is a blistering biopic full of humor that examines decades of political dealings through the life of a controversial figure all while spurning biopic clichés.